Wilco are one of the most respected bands on the planet — paragons of good taste, masters of genre-bridging craftsmanship and chill independence. Considering that heavy rep, it’s strange to think that when Jeff Tweedy put together Wilco’s first lineup 20 years ago, their loose bar-band vibe was a defiant response to the weighty myth he’d shouldered as a member of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo. Wilco’s first album in four years recalls their early “hey, what the hell” freedom, in spirit if not in sound. It’s their most concise, catchy, naturally songful album in at least a decade — the sound of a band reconnecting with the fun of rocking out together in a room.
Wilco’s two most recent studio LPs — 2011’s The Whole Love and 2009’s Wilco (The Album) — were musically lavish, but also a touch staid, with their rough edges burnished to a too-smooth finish. Everything about Star Wars betrays ease and immediacy: They released it online for free with no warning. The jokey title references one of the most universally held pleasures in the history of human culture. The music is built on some pretty essential influences as well — from the Abbey Road majesty of “More. . .” and the roughnecked T. Rex shoogity-oogity of “Random Name Generator” to the basement-glam punk attack of “Pickled Ginger” and the sad-ballad sweetness of “Magnetized.”
Wilco have gotten back in touch with their own strengths, too — especially the ability to match instantly familiar melodies with beautifully jarring noise, which made 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and 1996’s Being There into watersheds. “The Joke Explained” is a cute folk-rock ditty made full-on awesome by peals of searing Sonic Youth-style drone poetry. And then there’s “You Satellite,” the incandescent jam that serves as the album’s elusive centerpiece. It’s a seething yet warm meditation on clinging to faint light in dark times, with what sounds like a battalion of guitars roiling against drummer Glenn Kotche’s avant-jazz tumble. Only Wilco could make something this eruptive feel so comfy, like a steel-wool security blanket.
The music’s urgent, live-in-the-studio feel pairs well with Tweedy’s lyrics, which seem more direct and compact than they have in a while. He’s working his usual themes — doubt, devotion, everyday fears and resigned hopes — without any of the literary obscurity that sometimes creeps into his writing. “I was only after a friend to follow through,” he sings on the lovely “Taste the Ceiling,” sounding like John Lennon in a moment of hard-fought grace. You can’t help wonder if Sukierae, the deeply personal side project he recorded last year with his teenage son Spencer on drums, might have helped revive Tweedy’s feel for music’s elemental joy.
In the album’s most carefree moments, of which there are many, he sounds at home in himself — never an easy move for one of rock’s top chroniclers of midlife man-malaise. “I belong to the stars in the sky,” he sings on “Random Name Generator,” making a blues boast out of spacey poesy and totally pulling it off. Give it up for the man. He’s got the Force by the spaceballs.