Credit: Austin Nelson

No, Wilco’s ninth LP isn’t a concept album about Wookiees, but it does sound an awful lot like a band playing fast and loose in a garage in Mos Eisley. Since the 2002 release of the watershed alt-art masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco gradually drifted away from their headier tendencies and settled into a dad-rock express lane. But Star Wars (released as a surprise and given away on the band’s website; physical copies land later this month) delivers on the promise of 2011’s The Whole Love, which revived frontman Jeff Tweedy’s spacey, noisy niches. Tiny traces of Wilco’s alt-country roots remain, and the little bits of folk Americana provide enough of a gravitational pull to keep the escalating squiggles on “You Satellite” and “Cold Slope” from being sucked into the atmosphere. Even the chugging almost-anthem “Random Name Generator” and the buzzing campfire lullaby “Taste the Ceiling” strike a keen balance between earthbound melody and celestial experimentation.

At its weirdest and fuzziest moments, Star Wars retains an infectious joie de vivre—it’s the sound of dudes who love tapping into one another’s talent and humanity. Wilco have often been referred to as “the American Radiohead,” but they are better than that descriptor—Radiohead never sound like they’re having this much fun. A–