Release Date: Oct 4, 2019
Record label: dBpm
From their daft titles onwards, the last two Wilco albums - 2015's Star Wars and Schmilco from 2016 - hardly sounded like records that urgently needed to be made. In place of the epic expanses and depth of often desperately intense feeling of Wilco 's finest works, the albums favoured a loose, scrappy playfulness that ultimately suggested a finely-tuned machine (it is difficult to think of a more versatile and dynamic group of musicians than the one that constitutes Wilco's line-up of the last 15 years) tasked with processing somewhat second-rate source materials. That is not the case with Ode to Joy. These 11 cuts bristle and stretch with the confounding boldness of Wilco's finest works.
Understated beauty. My love affair with Wilco began in 2006 with the purchase of a tattered, used copy of Being There. There was something about the faded artwork that made the stripped down, no-frills rock feel authentic; it was as if I had unearthed a previous generation's gem that for some reason I'd never heard of. Needless to say, diving into the rest of their discography has been a pleasure - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Summerteeth, and Wilco remain semi-classics that each feel inimitable in their own ways.
Leading up to their 11th album, Ode to Joy, Wilco seems confident. They've been performing a little more than half of the album on their past tour, a move that's pretty rare for a legacy act. After a few Jeff Tweedy solo records and a tour, the Wilco ringleader returned to the gang and moved them back towards a mainline Wilco title. Which brings us to Ode to Joy, a sad and comfortable statement from a group of pros.
This 11th record sees the veteran alt-rockers subtly reboot their sound, and proves joy can come from simply appreciating the small stuff in life As album titles go, naming your latest after a classical symphony that redefined the entirety of Western music is, well, ballsy. "I think it's audacious and sincere," singer Jeff Tweedy said of Wilco's choice to borrow the title of their eleventh studio album from Ludwig van Beethoven's 1824 'Ode to Joy'. Opener 'Bright Leaves' is a red herring, the cheerful title at odds with a song that depicts a relationship in which history is sadly repeating itself.
Not long after releasing the dark and contemplative Schmilco in 2016, Wilco went on hiatus, and as the members involved themselves in various projects, leader Jeff Tweedy released his first two proper solo albums, 2018's Warm and its 2019 sibling Warmer. Where Schmilco possessed a subtle but clear undercurrent of dread, Warm and Warmer were full of warmth and compassion, however wary, as if to offer solace after the band peeked into the abyss. After returning to the stage in mid-2019, Wilco have staked out a middle ground between Schmilco and Warm/Warmer on their 13th album.
If the title of Wilco's 11th album had you thinking this might mark the point where the doubt and dread intrinsic to Jeff Tweedy's songwriting were cast aside for something sunnier, Ode To Joy's opener, Bright Leaves, suggests otherwise. The slow and steady dry thwack of Glenn Kotche's drums - as if he's solemnly thumping massive sandbags - hit you first: huge-sounding, yet unbombastic and disciplined. They're joined by layers of stray guitar chirps and drawn-out bass notes, creating a woozy soundbed that would work as the soundtrack to some kind of somnambulant protest march.
At the end of his 2018 memoir Let's Go (So We Can Get Back), Wilco's Jeff Tweedy noted a shift in his approach to songwriting. Where he once imagined singing only to himself, "pretending no one else is listening," the personal excavation of the book opened him to the idea of speaking to listeners, imparting exactly what he'd "like to say directly to someone." That desire for clarity informed his very good recent solo albums, last year's WARM and this year's WARMER. Where he once telegraphed emotional truths through murky poetry like a Midwestern John Ashbery, now he was addressing mortality, depression, and malaise head-on.
Considering the cryptic nature of now-legendary Chicago band Wilco and the enigmatic charm of its leader Jeff Tweedy, Ode to Joy may at first seem an overt kind of title—a rage against the dying of the light; a reminder, in a time of sorrow, that there is indeed goodness and happiness in the world. Nice and simple, one might think. Yet things are never that straightforward with Wilco.
Throughout Wilco's discography, Jeff Tweedy has always had a deft knack for transforming the entire mood of their music with nothing but a slight vocal inflection. It's that masterful control of vocal melody that underpins his songwriting, to the extent that, even throughout some of Wilco's more predictable, uneventful days (read: most of the past decade or so), Tweedy continues to command an audience. Ode to Joy, the band's most impressive record in years, sees Tweedy and Wilco having mastered their own delicate blend of indie rock, Americana and alternative country.
S ince Wilco's last album, 2016's Schmilco, frontman Jeff Tweedy has been busy, releasing three solo albums (including one, Warmer, just three months ago) and writing an autobiography. Yet his creative well is far from dry. While the downbeat folk stylings that dominate here mean the exuberant pop sensibilities of 1999's Summerteeth, and the envelope-pushing that defined his band's 00s output, and earned their (unwanted) reputation as "the American Radiohead" seem a distant memory, Ode to Joy is still rich in ideas.
W ilco's 11th studio album, apparently, is Jeff Tweedy confronting rockism (the belief that rock is the natural state of music. In short: the celebration of all things guitary and "authentic" over music that is shiny and instant). "Rockism is not intellectually an honest place to be, so this is more just a personal observation of what I don't want to do," he has said.
The Lowdown: "I won't escape my domain," Jeff Tweedy quietly muses on "One and a Half Stars". The Wilco chief has been tossing off introspective pearls like these for years, but this one feels particularly applicable to his band's latest release. Ode to Joy is Wilco's 11th record, and it raises a question that listeners never thought they'd have to ask: Is Wilco finally settling? (Buy: Tickets to Upcoming Wilco Shows) Ode to Joy fits perfectly within the music styles and quirks that have long made the band standard-bearers of post-millennium American indie rock.