Review | Wilco - Ode to Joy
‘Ode to Joy’, the twelfth studio album by alt-icons Wilco, marches to a strong beat.
Compared to the warm sound of 2016’s Schmilco, Ode to Joy is painted in wintery, pastoral colours. From the first thud of the gorgeous opener "Bright Leaves", we are in a world of snowdrifts, soft vocals and twinkling chimes. This distinctive style marks an interesting further step in the gradual evolution of Wilco’s sound. Sonically, we hear guitars and vocals fade from the foreground. Ode to Joy often risks wallowing in a muted tone. However, producers Jeff Tweedy and Tom Schick, the mastermind of Schmilco, battle this danger. The album has a vividly beating heart which keeps you hooked. Constantly pulsing, regular throbbing drums keep time. In the love song "Quiet Amplifier", for instance, melancholy vocals and gentle guitars are layered upon a steady, war-cry beat. Drums act as great lungs for the eleven-track album: breathing in, and out.
Several songs in the second half erupt from the pervasive minor-key tone, into bright light. Notably, the two singles. "Everyone Hides" rollicks along with fast drums, warm shakers and catchy hooks. In "Love is Everywhere (Beware)", a slowly building hum is periodically disrupted by irrepressible, joyous and jangly guitars.
The album’s steady drumbeat aesthetic is taken to its most dynamic extreme with "We Were Lucky". Three times in the five-minute song, pounding drums crescendo excitedly. On each occasion, the crescendo crests and collapses, leaving Bon Iver-like electronic glitches and distorted guitars.
Lyrically, Ode to Joy covers similar ground to Jeff Tweedy’s acclaimed solo albums WARM and WARMER. A war is played out across the three between honesty, openness and poetry. "Everyone Hides" is a strong response to the remarkable autobiographical openness of the two solo albums, as well as his recent memoir Let’s Go. While these projects undoubtedly allowed Tweedy to bare his soul, he now acknowledges that sometimes ‘the point gets lost in the tellin’, and the tellin’ was the point all the while’. Having spent 2018 telling the stories of his turbulent childhood, we have a return to the more comfortable and reliable world of poetry.
Ode to Joy sings in slippery and consistently beautiful terms of such great themes as time, love and death. A standout piece of poetry is "White Wooden Cross". Over a jaunty drum beat and delicate guitars, we are presented with the heartbreak of seeing an anonymous roadside grave. Reflecting on the identity of the deceased, the song becomes an ode to empathy. Empathy is presented as a kind of joy:
‘For all the people that I am not
And all their prayers and all their thoughts,
There’s so much more out there
Than where I stand
I blow my horn for the whole band’
Having dwelled on his own story, Jeff Tweedy now seems content to sing with Wilco and to tell stories of the wider world.
Best Song: Bright Leaves
Worst Song: Citizens