Album Review: Wilco – Ode To Joy

In recent times, a new Wilco release has been viewed with trepidation. The last two releases, Star Wars and Schmilco, although highly-rated across the board, lacked the heart and craft that you come to expect of Wilco. Like a band in a mid-life crisis searching for a sound and direction. With Ode To Joy, however, they’ve re-found it – and they seem to think so too:

“..It has meaning to us. Not that the last two records didn’t. They did as well. But this one seems to be more a part of our moment. I don’t want to say it’s more important to us, but it feels like—I don’t know. We really tried hard!”

Jeff Tweedy in an interview for Spin.com

I have to admit on my first listen through I thought this was pretty standard Wilco of recent years; some nice tunes, but nothing substantial and a lot of filler. On second listen, and with headphones on, I got drawn in.

The album leaves me feeling sombre – which isn’t a bad thing. Familiar, heartfelt and introspective. It gets me in a contemplative mood, like I’ve been absently looking out of the window of a moving train for 45 minutes. It’s a welcome feeling, because this is the Wilco that I first connected with on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and hasn’t been evident on recent albums.

The sound of the album is intentionally deconstructed and sparse. What is apparent immediately in ‘Bright Leaves’ is the steady, uncomplicated drums and the undominating lead guitar, eschewed in place of soft organ and fiddly piano. As Nels Cline (lead guitar) puts it, the guitar is trying to “[lay] one tiny little blanket of sounds”. The next three tracks all follow a similar vein: The simple production allowing the songs to breathe and build to create a wall of noise, with ‘Quiet Amplifier’ being the pick of the bunch. It’s apparent that they’re not going for the full rock-band sound, rather focusing on immersion, layering and composition, something they haven’t done for a long time.

‘Everyone Hides’, their second single from the record, kicks into more upbeat tempos and generally a more upbeat second half of the album. The drums now take on a fuller sound, although still holding off the cymbals as they do throughout the album, and lead guitar becomes more prominent, especially on ‘We Were Lucky’ where there’s a rare opportunity to grind out a solo.

‘Love Is Everywhere (Beware)’, their first single from the album and arguably their best single in a decade, is unashamedly happy in sound if not in lyrics. The song bops and sways as Tweedy sings “Sadness wants me/Further away from the scene”, stark in comparison to the album and song title. Being on the outside, feeling like that’s where you belong or that you don’t belong, is something that’s raised numerous times in the album. This honesty and nuance is where Tweedy’s songwriting excels, and goes a long way to underwriting why the songs here feel more substantive.

Whenever a new Wilco album is released now, I always think that this one could be the banger that harks back to previous greatness, and that I know they have in them. And with every one I’m sort of disappointed. I think that’s an issue with my expectations, because Wilco’s sound has developed and changed over time. Ode To Joy may not be the seminal album I’d like, but it is a return to form, and at least it’s filled me with hope that the seminal album is still out there.

Anthony Warrington

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