Wilco (photo by Annabel Mehran, PR)
Ode To Joy
This past winter, Wilco met at their Chicago studio, the Loft, to record their first album since 2016’s Schmilco. The result of those sessions is their 11th studio album, Ode To Joy. (Wilco also collaborated with Billy Bragg on three Mermaid Avenue albums too.)
Listening to Ode To Joy, it's clear that despite the few years since Schmilco, Wilco’s sense of musical adventure remains strong and also very perceptive of these turbulent times. In a statement, singer, songwriter and guitarist Jeff Tweedy describes Ode To Joy as a response to day-to-day chaos. "This terrible stuff is happening, this deepening sense of creeping authoritarianism that weighs on everybody's psyche on a daily basis," he says, "and you're allowed to feel a lot of things at once. And one thing that is worth feeling, that is worth fighting for, is your freedom to still have joy even though things are going to s***."
It’s an interesting description for the album, since much of it seems decidedly somber and dark, with a muffled and distorted weightiness settled over all of the songs. Tweedy told Vulture that the track “Quiet Amplifier” is “the overall template for the record in terms of a cohesive sonic landscape.” He's also released three albums in a short time span — his two solo albums, Warm and Warmer, have come out over the twelve months too. It's evident that he's got a lot to say.
Ode To Joy also boasts Wilco’s longest lasting lineup: Original members Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt along with drummer Glenn Kotche, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, lead guitarist Nels Cline, and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone. This accomplished sextet came together in 2007 on the album Sky Blue Sky, and they’ve spent a dozen years carving out a niche as pop music visionaries.
Ode To Joy starts off ominously with “Bright Leaves,” a song with a stomping beat, awash with electronic and synthesized sounds that permeate a surreal soundscape. This military-like percussive pace continues on the cerebral “Before Us” and “We Were Lucky,” the latter an artsy vehicle for Cline’s guitar innovations. The beat quickens on “Everyone Hides,” but it never bursts through the restrained vibe that pervades this stripped-down album.
The midtempo pop of “White Wooden Cross” is punctuated with a restrained slide guitar. Guitars also play a solid part on two of the album’s more straightforward songs: “Love Is Everywhere (Beware),” adorned with glistening chords, and “Hold Me Anyway,” which is toughened up by buzzing riffs.
Throughout Ode To Joy, Tweedy sings in hushed, introspective tones over what are essentially folk melodies, all executed with a dynamic sense of innovation. The songs combine introspective, contemplative, and experimental approaches, which all give this accomplished album its distinctiveness.
The subdued psychedelic haze of Wilco's Ode to Joy is a dark meditation for modern times. Every song celebrates joy or is a search for joy during this difficult era, sometimes a futile task, but always a hopeful one.