Now that two full decades have elapsed since Wilco surfaced with its alt-country leaning debut disc A.M., Jeff Tweedy and company have earned the kind of pop clout to journey down whatever stylistic path it chooses. But the marvelous thing about Wilco's enduring appeal, an aspect underscored by its total blast of a new album, Star Wars, is whatever artistic profile it has amassed has been reinforced by pure fearlessness.
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On the 11 new songs that make up Star Wars, the pattern would seem to reference every record it has made since A.M. Specifically, the game plan centers around pure pop with the edges corroded and refashioned to the band's specifications. How else do you explain the New Morning-era Dylan surge of I Was Only Asking that flirts with psychedelia as it heads into the home stretch or the catacylismic finale tune Magnetized that surrenders to it completely. Then there is the fuzzed out bass that bumps and bounces under Tweedy's skittish singing on Pickled Finger, a tune as deliciously peculiar as its title. Best of all is the way Star Wars heads straight for the ditch right out of the starting gate with 76 seconds of frenzy called EKG that introduces the two chief constructionists of Wilco's warped pop charge — guitarist Nels Cline and drummer (and University of Kentucky grad, lest we forget) Glenn Kotche — through a woozy calliope of criss-crossed riffs and beats that set the album's gleefully irregular heartbeat.
Humor and unrest, as always, abound in Tweedy's songs and especially in his vocalwork. His wily pop spirit has a field day on the merrily wigged out Random Name Generator. You could easily imagine an entire horn section fueling the tune's roaring groove. Instead, guitars define the rhythm in a way that better befits Tweedy's cheery mumble ("I kind of like it when I make you cry, a miracle only once in awhile"). This is the Star Wars tune destined to stick to your brain after your first listen to the album.
But the Dylan-esque grin resurfaces on the hapless The Joke Explained, a quixotic meditation masquerading as a bit of defused pop fun. "It's a staring contest in a hall of mirrors," Tweedy sings as if the lyrics were pouring out of his mouth as an aside. "I sweat tears but I don't ever cry."
The only real problem with the album is its length. It clocks in at a scant 33 minutes. Then again, the secret to any presentation is to state your case, engage your audience and leave it wanting more. On that score, all that can be said for Star Wars is Roger Wilco that.
Walter Tunis | Contributing Music Critic