December 19, 2015 / 3:18 pm

Wilco – Star Wars

Released: 7/16 via dBpm

5/7 stars

It’s hard to separate Star Wars from its sudden release in the middle of the summer. Surprise album drops aren’t as rare as they used to be, not after Beyoncé released her self-titled at the end of 2013. Since then, lots of high-profile artists have followed suit. D’Angelo reignited his long-dormant career with Black Messiah at the end of 2014, and Drake solidified his hip-hop dominance with a surprise mixtape at the beginning of 2015. Wilco’s ninth studio album might not carry the historical weight of D’Angelo or tilt the axis of the music world like Beyoncé, but Star Wars is indicative of a more confident, assured Wilco. It’s the best album the band has put out since the addition of guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, and possibly their best since 2001’s sublime Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. That is was dropped without warning only serves to muddle just how solid this album is.

Since YHF, the band has received critical praise and derision for a variation on the same theme. They’re simultaneously a band that is consistently willing to take risks or a band that is anything but risky. Reviews of Star Wars seemed to reflect that divide as well, with critics praising the band’s experimentation while others derided the album’s safeness. And while it won’t break down any genre walls or revolutionize rock music, Star Wars is a lean record, clocking in at just under 34 minutes, and manages to feel entirely off the cuff while still sounding meticulously crafted.

The opening skronk of instrumental “EKG” is more playful than serious, almost winking it its faux-seriousness. “More” is classic Wilco: slightly off-kilter in its ambling rhythm, but with a strong Jeff Tweedy hook (and a wigged-out Nels Cline solo for good measure; he has never been better employed on-record by the band). “Random Name Generator” rocks as hard as anything in the band’s catalogue, with a careening, downhill riff and a nonsense vocal hook propelling the song into fuzzed-out joy. “You Satellite” threatens to take off into the stratosphere with its spacey, shimmering coda; it’s an album highlight, and one of the most strangely beautiful songs Wilco has ever put to tape. Even the more straightforward tracks have subtle wrinkles thrown in. “Taste the Ceiling” features some left-field guitar work, while the stripped down “Where Do I Begin” ripples into backwards drums and guitar lines. They also feature some of the record’s most devastating lyrics: “Taste the Ceiling” is punctuated by Tweedy asking “why do our disasters creep so slowly into view?” While the band’s performance on these tracks is unshakably great, Tweedy also continues to prove why he’s one of the greatest lyricists of the last 20 years.

Elsewhere, the scuzzy, lo-fi rocker “Pickled Ginger” and the hypnotizing march of “King of You” turn the classic old I-IV-V progression on its head, while closer “Magnetized” ends the album on a haunting note. Tweedy’s lyrics have always been hazy and elliptical, but he’s able to strike the right nerve with a well-placed line. “Magnetized” opens immediately with the seemingly nonsensical line “Orchestrate the shallow pink refrigerator drone,” before Tweedy drops a crushingly casual “everybody wastes my time.” He’s always been a master at conveying isolation and inner turmoil, but on “Magnetized” he seems resigned to do battle with his loneliness, however begrudgingly. “I realize we’re magnetized”, he sings, and it almost sounds like surrender. In any case, his musings are swallowed by the band as the music grows behind him, and Star Wars is over almost as suddenly as it began.

Wilco dropped this album the night before their Friday night headlining set at the 2015 Pitchfork Music Festival. They came out to “EKG” and played the whole album straight through, for the first time ever. Maybe they felt emboldened, being on their home turf of Chicago and all. Maybe they just felt like this was the best collection of songs they’ve put out in a long, long time. That’s certainly true; Star Wars could’ve amounted to nothing more than a novelty, getting attention from everything but the music. The surprise release, the silly name, and the even sillier album cover all could’ve just been smokescreens deployed to shroud the contents within. Instead, Star Wars is a gem of an album, a work that may come to stand shoulder to shoulder among the band’s best once the dust settles.

Key Tracks: “Random Name Generator”, “You Satellite”, “King of You”, “Magnetized”