Jeff Tweedy has become a sort of Windy City equivalent of Jack White, his influence proliferating through his own projects and his productions of such as Mavis Staples, White Denim, Low and Richard Thompson. Last year, he unveiled his new double album Sukierae, recorded with his son, Spencer, on drums; but just when it seems we might be approaching peak Tweedy, he bowls another googly by suddenly issuing the latest Wilco album for free via the band’s website.
Even by Wilco’s adventurous standards, Star Wars is possibly the most unusual, exploratory work of the band’s existence. It would be hard, given the bursts of angular, metallic guitar that score these songs like diamonds across a window pane, to persuade a newcomer that this was once a band firmly entrenched in alt.country Americana. And doubtless there will be many fans of that older-style Wilco who will be reassured by not having to pay for an album perhaps not entirely to their taste; although anyone who has caught the band live in the past decade will not be shocked by the wilder shores of Star Wars.
There’s no attempt made to disguise their intentions: the album opens with a brief, atonal guitar instrumental called “EKG”, its jerky, darting lines at sharp angles to one another, careering towards a premature crash-landing. But it’s not so much the throwing-down of a gauntlet as an invitation to the thrill of the unexpected, prefiguring a zig-zag course during which the band never settle into one style for longer than a song or two at a time.“More…” wanders dizzily along on woozy, stumblebum guitar figures, until swamped by a wave of distortion; then the band’s Seventies influences take the reins for “Random Name Generator”, built around the kind of waspish, distorted guitar riff that 10cc favoured on Sheet Music. The title perhaps explains a lyric whose non sequiturs continue Wilco’s taste for “exquisite corpse” writing methods. But before you’ve figured what it’s about, further keening guitar lines wing in to push the song to its conclusion, and it no longer matters.
At five minutes, “You Satellite” is the longest track, its opening bricolage of guitar noise threatened by a looming grunge riff, before layers of counterpoint guitar lines pick out lovely harmonic intervals which control the song’s final shape. It’s a brilliant exercise in musical metamorphosis which alone justifies the download, whilst setting up the ensuing “Taste the Ceiling”, a genially honest love song in which Tweedy’s Lennon-esque drawl is the perfect vehicle for a sentiment like “I’m only asking for a moment of the truth… I could never leave the part of me that you refuse”.
A similarly stubborn sentiment marks “Pickled Ginger” (“No one tells me how to be saved”), before “Where Do I Begin” evokes The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg at his most wracked. Further tart, atonal sprays of guitar feature in “Cold Slope” and “King of You”, but it’s likely to be the closer “Magnetized” that becomes the album’s most popular track. Again, the band’s Beatle influences are to the fore, with warm organ chords beneath Tweedy’s Lennon-lite delivery, a McCartney-mild piano progression and a Harrison-ic guitar swoon. It’s a beautiful, open love song that finds Tweedy “magnetized” by a picture of him with his beloved, and as a warbling theremin leads to a gently euphoric Mercury Rev-style climax, it leaves one marvelling at how such an initially spiky, confrontational album can resolve in such a lovely, warm manner. But then, that’s the magic of albums for you, eh?