ALBUM REVIEW: Ode to Joy by Wilco

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WRITTEN BY: Tim Shermer

You wouldn’t tear any ligaments if you were to make the stretch of calling October 4th the most bountiful, well-rounded New Music Friday in recent memory. New releases from Danny Brown, Angel Olsen, and Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds (just to name a few) sent all varieties of music fans flocking to record stores and streaming apps last Friday to get a first listen. Maybe this helps explain why one of the year’s most rewarding listens, a late-career master stroke in every sense, flew under the music world’s radar more than it realistically should have.

With their eleventh studio album Ode to Joy, renowned Chicago sextet Wilco has made a most poignant return to form, doing many of the things they do best without sounding the least bit derivative, clichéd, or otherwise plagued by the scourges that have fallen upon many a-rock band that makes it to the mile-marker at which Jeff Tweedy’s group finds themselves—on the doorstep of their fourth decade playing together.

“I remember when wars would end … / Now when something’s dead, we try to kill it again,” sings Tweedy on the dirge-like “Before Us,” the album’s second track. Lyrically, it couldn’t be more timely. Instrumentally, it makes use of conventional drums as well as auxiliary percussion to intensify an astounding sparseness that carries over from album opener “Bright Leaves” and sets the tone for the remaining nine tracks.

What this record may ultimately suffer from is its lack of upbeat tracks and a shortage of risk-taking, but it has a coherence to it that was missing from other 2010s releases (Star Wars and Schmilco come to mind) and an emphasis on the stripped-down and contemplative side of the group matched only by 2004’s A Ghost is Born.

Now 52, Jeff Tweedy got his start in prototypical Midwestern country-rock outfit Uncle Tupelo, which saw fringe success before disbanding in the early ‘90s. It didn’t take long after the formation of Wilco in 1994 for Tweedy to establish himself as a ranking member of the “alt-country” faction of Dylan-informed turn-of-the-millennium indie songwriters—an Ira Kaplan or David Berman with more pronounced folk and heartland inclinations.

“Love Is Everywhere (Beware)” and “Everyone Hides” were the two singles shared by the band leading up to Ode to Joy’s release, neither one standing out as the album’s high point. “Love Is Everywhere” benefits from an interesting triplet-based riff, but eats up three and a half minutes without really going anywhere. “Everyone Hides” is the most high-energy of the record’s eleven songs, and more than anything just feels out of place at the very end of Side A.  

Nels Cline’s lead guitar playing is far less indulgent than it was on mid-aughts triumphs A Ghost is Born or Sky Blue Sky, but that’s on purpose. Gone are the drawn-out, virtuosic solos that cemented “Impossible Germany” in the modern rock canon, and in their place is an equally important style of playing that centers Jeff Tweedy’s musings. When Cline finally does get the nod to solo in his trademark sporadic style on “We Were Lucky,” it feels a hundred times more rewarding.

While it’s doubtful Ode to Joy will ever come to be regarded as an indispensable piece of the Wilco catalog mentioned in the same conversations as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it’s rich in the “bitter melodies” and remarkable candor that audiences have come to expect from Tweedy and company. That’s not to suggest their sound hasn’t evolved in the interval since 2016’s Schmilco and a subsequent brief hiatus; in fact, the hiatus—which gave Tweedy time to release two solo albums (WARM and WARMER) and pen his 2018 memoir “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)”—might be exactly what an aging Wilco needed.

The final two tracks feel like Ode to Joy’s strongest, but maybe it’s just how well they pull the entire record together. “Hold Me Anyway” is two sides of the classic Wilco coin, opening with confessional lyrics and all the acoustic bluesiness of Sky Blue Sky’s “Please Be Patient with Me” and giving way to a soaring progression that provides the album with a definite climax by the time its finale “An Empty Corner” has come and gone.

They’ve certainly never been the coolest or most technically dazzling group, but that was never Wilco’s aim. Ode to Joy is best enjoyed in the moments of quiet reflection, in the languid early hours of the morning that so rarely call for a soundtrack—and any careful examination of Tweedy’s latest compositions will leave admirers of all generations at a loss for a more earnest and fulfilling offering from one of rock’s most iconic and versatile bands. 

Track list:

  1. Bright Leaves
  2. Before Us
  3. One and a Half Stars
  4. Quiet Amplifier
  5. Everyone Hides
  6. White Wooden Cross
  7. Citizens
  8. We Were Lucky
  9. Love Is Everywhere (Beware)
  10. Hold Me Anyway
  11. An Empty Corner

Follow writer Tim Shermer on Twitter @tdshermer

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