Published Jul 23, 2015Since their inception, Wilco have been defined by a sonic restlessness that has found them exploring new genres and styles on each record. It's one of their greatest strengths, but also one that has led to a persistent push and pull between band members as they try to balance melodic alt-country and their weirder, more experimental leanings. When these two pieces fall into place alongside one another, as it did best on their undeniable classic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it's a potent concoction that transcends the straight Americana/Uncle Tupelo mould from whence they came. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for Wilco to lose that balance.
Such is the case with Star Wars, an album whose title, cover art and spontaneous method of release all reflect a lack of definition. To be clear, there's nothing particularly bad about the album — but there's little that's memorable here. Where The Whole Love found Wilco more comfortably embracing their experimental side, Star Wars lowers the freak flag a few notches while maintaining a comparable sound. In the same way that Sky Blue Sky bottled up and homogenized much of what made Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and to a lesser extent A Ghost Is Born, successful, Star Wars takes the Krautrock and Sonic Youth-style jams that flourished on the previous album into a more accessible format, to diminishing returns.
Opening the album with a vanilla segment of King Crimson-esque dissonance, Star Wars, like its predecessor, seems to declare its attempt at weirdness from the start. What stands out most here is Nels Cline's guitar playing, along with the Built to Spill-style textures he lends to the mostly straightforward songs. It's moments like this, where Tweedy allows his band mates to shine through ("You Satellite," "Taste the Ceiling") without getting in the way of the song that turn out to be the best. But more often than not, his vocals sound dull and domesticated, and the songs tend to come and go without leaving much of a mark.
As the ninth addition to the Wilco canon, Star Wars is a vessel for a few impressive tunes, another respectable — if just a little uninspired — step for a band that continues to unapologetically evolve. (dBpm)