You can tell a lot about a Wilco record based on the first few seconds. This is true of any album-oriented band, but especially so when you’re dealing with such an accomplished and wide-ranging catalog. The lovelorn twang of “I Must Be High,” the thunderous churn and down-home charm of “Misunderstood,” the studio-pop fantasia of “Can’t Stand It,” the waking-into-a-dream Midwest surrealism of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” the bedside whispers and jarring blasts of “At Least That’s What You Said,” the easygoing melancholia of “Either Way,” the self-referential meat-and-potatoes of “Wilco (The Song),” and the cinematic tour de force of “Art Of Almost” — all of them make a significant statement about what’s to come. They lay the blueprint and set the tone, welcoming you back into Jeff Tweedy’s current headspace and letting you know what kind of Wilco album you’re getting.
So what can we learn from “EKG,” the entry point into Wilco’s surprise free album Star Wars? It’s a jagged, jittery thing, a discordant instrumental curio that barely lasts more than a minute. It suggests what follows will be Wilco’s most slapdash, rough-and-tumble record, something more akin to Tweedy, Glenn Kotche, and Jim O’Rourke’s Loose Fur side project or Sukierae, the album Tweedy and his son Spencer released last year. If it calls back to any particular Wilco songs, it’s the scraggly A Ghost Is Born-era rockers “I’m A Wheel” and “Kicking Television.” And like the rest of Wilco’s album openers, “EKG” doesn’t lie about what’s to follow.
Star Wars rocks harder than Wilco albums tend to rock, yet it does so in scruffy, understated fashion. A big factor is Tweedy’s detached vocal melodies. He rarely raises his voice to a lovable strained rasp, almost always turning to his arsenal of weary mumbles and haunted whispers. It hurts the songs; can you imagine how much “Kamera,” “Via Chicago,” or “Misunderstood” would lose if Tweedy had stayed in his low register the whole time? On the instrumental side of things, some of the best tracks saunter like the most outgoing moments on their ’90s records, “Random Name Generator” and “King Of You” in particular. But it trades the heavily layered, polished onslaughts of the Jay Bennett era for something closer to Wilco’s version of a Spoon album — minimal, elemental rock songs with occasional blasts of noise coloring in the empty spaces.
Specifically it reminds me of Transference, the low-key, lo-fi cult favorite/forgotten stepchild of the Spoon discography. Like Transference, Star Wars is a humble album with few obvious highlights, a detail-oriented headphone listen that nonetheless feels tossed-off. Radiohead’s The King Of Limbs is also a worthy parallel, another late-period record from a feverishly beloved band that arrived by surprise and failed to deliver an instant rush. Those albums have their devotees, and so will Star Wars, but it’s not going to be most people’s favorite Wilco release, and it probably won’t bring many outsiders into the cult.
Even lesser Wilco albums have their standouts, though, and this one is speckled with a handful of future classics. The harmonic noise-lurch “More…” is the most instantly likable song, tapping into Wilco’s classic-rock sweet spot without stooping to cheap thrills. The five-minute floating churn “You Satellite” is beautiful enough to freeze you in your tracks and violent enough to hurt you. “Cold Slope” creeps along with a beat reminiscent of “Kingpin” marked by gorgeous sighing flourishes and Tweedy’s charmingly erratic solos. I could keep going, appreciating the Lou-Reed-gone-country excursion “The Joke Explained” or the slow and steady bloom of “Magnetized,” but the cumulative effect of these early listens is underwhelming and brown. Once I got over the giddy goodwill that comes with a surprise free album, I found myself longing for the revitalized veterans that made The Whole Love.
Like the King Of Limbs material, I imagine these Star Wars songs will bloom in the live setting, nestled into the context of Wilco’s fertile catalog and given the chance to breathe and evolve. The album itself may reveal further beauty over time, too — take it from somebody who initially shat on Sky Blue Sky. When you have as many masterpieces to your name as Wilco does, you’ve earned that kind of patience. On the other hand, a fan base that has been conditioned to expect masterpieces is bound to be disappointed when an album requires this much work to love. Wilco records have always had a sighing quality about them, but rarely have they felt so much like a shrug.
Star Wars is out now on Anti-/dBpm. For a limited time, download it for free at Wilco’s website.