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Review: Wilco Do Without Trying on ‘Star Wars’

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: July 16, 2015
Label: dBpm

It’s now been over a decade since Wilco released A Ghost Is Born, the band’s highly anticipated follow up to its 2002 opus, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. With its nods to Krautrock and panic attack-inspired guitar freakouts, Ghost solidified the band’s mid-century reputation as one of the most adventurous mainstream rock groups in the country. So when Wilco surfaced three years later with yet another new mask (this time ’70s roots rock) for 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, many longtime fans scratched their heads at Tweedy and Co.’s newfound melodic pleasantries.

Thus initiated a particularly creative, if unsexy, new chapter in the twenty-year career of Wilco, which has since released two other similarly inviting albums over the past decade — 2009’s Wilco (The Album) and 2011’s The Whole Love — that are challenging in their general refusal to be anything but unadorned, adult rock records.

With Star Wars, Wilco’s new surprise album, the Chicago sextet fuses its earlier noise-rock inclinations with its latter-day penchant for sturdy songcraft. The key, once again, is guitarist Nels Cline, who has never sounded more at home since joining the group in 2004. Cline’s unrivaled playing is the first sound on the opening instrumental “EKG,” and it remains the album’s defining common thread throughout, from the taut power-pop of “Random Name Generator,” to the ’90s feedback grunge of “Pickled Ginger,” to the droning album highlight “You Satellite.” On that last one, which Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche co-wrote with Tweedy, the band slowly builds around Cline’s hypnotic riff until Tweedy shouts, “I don’t want to go and I don’t want to stay,” outright refuting Mick Jones’ age-old question, and the song bubbles over.

Wilco has always indulged its maximalist tendencies to great success, but one of the greatest joys of this latest effort is hearing the band practicing its newest trick: concision. At 34 minutes, Star Wars is their shortest studio record by some measure, with only one song going over four minutes. Much of Wilco’s newfound brevity can be chalked up to Tweedy, whose songwriting seems particularly reinvigorated after last year’s solo detour. His writing on Star Wars still walks the line between his trademark blend of jaded romanticism and associative abstraction, but he exhibits an unprecedented economy of language and phrase this time around. “Try the words in sequence,” he teases, self-consciously, on “Taste the Ceiling,” “but that’s never how it’s done.”

The 47-year-old frontman is as sharp as ever on “Where Do I Begin,” a sparse, helpless ballad that recalls some of his finest lovesick Summerteeth gems. “Alright, at least you cried,” Tweedy sings, starting his narrative in the middle of a distraught conversation between two struggling, committed lovers. “A point of pride has torn in two.” Letting such offhand details do most of the (emotional) heavy lifting has always been one of Tweedy’s greatest gifts — e.g. “The ashtray says you were up all night” — but rarely has he sounded more in command.

Since the mid 2000s, Wilco has quietly amassed an entire career’s worth of highlights, whether its the jam-rock perfection of 2007’s “Impossible Germany,” the quiet devastation of 2009’s “One Wing,” or the brutal 2011 folk epic “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend).” No one song sticks out so prominently this time around, but that’s just because Star Wars works so well as a cohesive whole.

And remarkably, the ever-changing band has found a way to please fans of each of their distinct periods. Like they sang six years ago: “Wilco will love you.”

Correction: A previous version of this post misidentified the singer of the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go.”

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