Wilco Explore Reflective Ruminations on ‘Ode to Joy’

Wilco have garnered a reputation as upstarts and icons in the indie rock scene since the days of 2001’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” when a label skirmish raised questions about the music industry, and created a buzz that catapulted the band into the public eye. They’ve been at it now for a quarter century, and have just released their eleventh album, “Ode to Joy.” The album is highly anticipated, as frontman Jeff Tweedy has recently focused on solo efforts, keeping Wico fans waiting until this final, telling moment. Tweedy is up to his usual, recasting themes covered on previous Wilco albums, while giving this one a distinct flavor of its own, and virtuoso guitarist Nels Cline is still up to his game, giving the music the extra edge.  

Opener “Bright Leaves” starts a bit jagged and twisted, with squeaky home equipment adopted as percussion, giving the album an offbeat, edgy start. The minimalist pulse frames Tweedy’s musings in an existential closeup, and Cline punctuates the narration with short bits of  feedback and distorted blurts. Tweedy’s monotonous delivery is the sound of defeatist acceptance. He repeats “You’ll never change,” sounding as if in a perpetual sigh. From first impressions, one would have to guess the album title “Ode to Joy” is meant in the most ironic manner. “Before Us” comes in a seamless transition, further expanding on the sluggish frailty established. The guitar refrain is catchy, and Tweedy repeats, “Alone with the people who have come before” so many times that even if the excessive repetition is designed to evoke a certain emotional response, it’s insufferable. Perhaps that’s the point to torture by endless repetition, and so convey the feeling of lonely drudgery. At any rate, there are some pointed lyrics, like “I remember when wars would end…Now‚ when something’s dead / We try to kill it again.” You have to hand it to Tweedy here. How long exactly have we been in Afghanistan?

“One and a Half Stars” continues faithfully in the same mood and mode. At times, it can be hard to make sense of what exactly Tweedy is going for with his vocal melodies, and this song is a prime example. It literally sounds like a child first learning to tell apart notes, and enthusiastically demonstrating this newfound skill to everyone’s exhaustion. The refrain here is “I can’t escape my domain,” and it rings truer than anything, already expressed without the words needed. “Quiet Amplifier” comes along, with Tweedy sounding especially strained, as if reaching for an expression and struggling. It’s the perfect mode of delivery for a song called “Quiet Amplifier,” and this song serves as an example of the brilliance Wilco can tap into, on a more conceptual level. 

One of the catchiest songs on the album is “Everyone Hides.” It sounds quite like a just pre-Rubber Soul-era Beatles song, and Tweedy even sounds, at points, uncannily like John Lennon. On the next song, “White Wooden Cross,” he puts on his Bob Dylan voice at certain moments, curling up his voice in that quintessential folk way. This song is another one of the clingers, with the chorus packing a punch. Wilco are a band whose aesthetic is very much defined by sparseness, lack of filigree, so a fleeting moment of intricate keys thrown in on this song strikes like the biggest thrill. It seems like Tweedy and Crew have a good grip on dynamics, being able to savvily frame bits in fanciful ways amid the backdrop of their distinctive, generally stripped-down style with which they’ve made a name for themselves. This song stands out as particularly chilling for the subject matter, about seeing a roadside memorial, and suddenly contemplating if you or your loved one were involved in such a thing. It could be the most touching song of the album. 

Tweedy has a penchant for effortless lyricism, fraught with visceral imagery, and this comes out in “Citizens,” in which he sings, “Throw me on the rope / Wound tight / Nervous fright / Darling, the killer you know,” then goes on to repeat “White lies, white lies.” The approach is still essentially the same as it began on this record a tired, defeatist declaration, and at this point the album is starting to take form as a strikingly cohesive artistic statement. “We Were Lucky” is the stellar standout of the album, striking as in a league entirely of its own, because of Cline’s input. Wilco is a band that makes its image on understatement, and the rare moment of indulgence ends up all the more meaningful. Cline is absolutely killing it on this track, with the most stylish, subtly thoughtful phrasing, at moments recalling “Blood & Chocolate”-era Elvis Costello. 

“Love is Everywhere (Beware)” is a loaded title. The song ends up being essentially a nod to the same sentiment of the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” with extra emphasis on encouraging people to be empathic in times when they’re not so inclined. It’s an admirable subject, and one expressed with a genuinity that makes you have to love Tweedy. At this point, the album is starting to get more vibrant, after the long buildup of hopefully designed monotony that preceded. “Hold Me Anyway” is a readymade classic, another Beatles-inspired number, but with Cline’s guitar playing evoking the likes of “Here Come the Warm Jets”-era Brian Eno. Finally, the closing track, aptly titled “An Empty Corner,” seals the affair, clarifying the same mindset intimated on the opener, with lyrics like “The silver black boot / That cracked my front tooth / Is a new kind of truth / I’m getting used to.” The change comes in the final, repeated refrain, “You’ve got family out there.”

So maybe that’s it. That’s the ode to joy. An entire album of mainly cynical, miserable thoughts ends with a seemingly halfheartedly expressed declaration that, “You’ve got family out there.” An ode to joy it is. We must remember, after all, that Wilco are indie rock icons, and indie rock is a scene that thrives on irony, sometimes to a farcical extent. “An Ode to Joy” will be appreciated by regular Wilco fans, as it showcases the band with all its trademark qualities. For those who aren’t already signed on, this is essentially “lifestyle music,” a term used by Radiohead when describing Coldplay. It’s more of a lifestyle signifier than a musical passion, in this case one that defines itself specifically on its lack of any notable edge. Still, there are moments of musical wonder, mainly due to Cline, whose presence is a game-changing asset to this band, and there are lovable sentiments and meaningful lyrics along the way. 

Ode to Joy” is available Oct. 4 on Apple Music.