Wilco Brings Back (Some of) the Fun

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wilco_starwars_1425blink-350x350Wilco
Star Wars
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In A Word: Fun (Wilco-Style)

Hello, my name is Steve, and I’m not the biggest fan of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – the album many consider the band’s breakthrough work.

I realize that, for some,  this may disqualify me from reviewing Wilco, ever, but let me explain. It’s not that I don’t like YHF  – I admire the hell out of it, and that’s the problem. But it’s a hard record to love.  It’s lovely, but it’s the queasy loveliness of someone trying too hard to be lovely. It has “masterpiece” stamped all over it, which can be very off-putting, and I prefer to make up my own mind about that, thank you. There was a time where opinions about the album were less about its artistic merits (which are bountiful) than declaring allegiance to a certain style of music. It’s also not the album I reach for if I’m in a Wilco mood. I prefer the albums released on either side of YHF: the uneasy pop of Summerteeth and the guitar noise sprawl of A Ghost Is Born. (I’ve come to the same pass about Sgt. Pepper, which I guess makes Summerteeth Wilco’s Revolver and Ghost… the White Album. I’m OK with that.)

Since then, with the exception of the sad-sack soul of Sky Blue Sky, Wilco’s albums have arrived with a furrowed-brow belief in their own worth. They all have their moments, but come with an unearned weightiness, a musicianly self-regard.  But Star Wars, their surprise release that was available as a free download until August 13 (see below), it a delightfully bouyant collection. Eleven songs clocking in 33 minutes, it’s a compact and engaging album. From the opening fusillade of “EKG,” 90 seconds of angular no wave skronk, it sounds like the band is having fun, a word that has not been associated with Wilco for a long time.

So the experimentation and weird sounds that have sometimes felt like Wilco’s focus are tucked into the short, tightly constructed tunes. Nels Cline – one of the most underrated great guitarists working today – fills them with surprising fills and sprightly riffs. There’s the clattering loops at the end of “Random Name Generator” (the poppiest song on the album) that sound like wheels clicking into place,  the glammy leads that snake through “The Joke Explained,” the de-tuned semaphores that punctuate “You Satellite,” the gassy distortion on “Pickled Ginger.”

As is almost always the case with Wilco, there are, if not exactly dark clouds, then let’s call it fog. Jeff Tweedy doesn’t write straightforward songs, but sly, coded messages whose impenetrability is by design. Which means you’re left with fragments, snatches of phrases to hold on to. They’re a two-person saw, cutting but dependent.  The first words heard are a greeting to “a shallow tribe,” he’s an “eternal instigator” who runs away; engaging in a “staring contest in a hall of mirrors, “there’s always a zig and a zag.”  The album’s final song, the sleepy, dappled “Magnetized,” almost comes to terms with these conflicts; it’s a love song for people who attract and repel either other depending on whether their poles are aligned.

It might not be the kind of statement that people have come to expect from Wilco, but that’s Star Wars’ advantage. It’s the sound of a band with no agenda other than to enjoy themselves making music. That’s good enough for me.

Steven Mirkin
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