Published Oct 14, 2019"Did you think everything would be okay?" Jeff Tweedy asks incredulously during "Hold Me Anyway," and the line from one of his most Randy Newman-y songs, really captures the tone of Wilco's emotionally varied and challenging Ode to Joy.
Produced starkly, with the famously virtuosic Wilco team mostly grounding the musical fireworks they're capable of, Ode to Joy is both direct and impermeable. Wilco records reward repeated listens; this one demands them.
On "Bright Leaves," Glen Kotche's kick drum is joined by a shaker for every stark beat, and the effect makes an otherwise steady rhythm feel just the right bit off. As the rest of the band fold in, Tweedy repeats, "I never change," and it's like the song is admitting as much too, but perhaps it's also making a larger point about the band's homeland.
If the sentiment of Ode to Joy has any source material, Wilco fans might look to "Ashes of American Flags," from 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which certainly begets "Before Us." Even on its moody surface, the dark song, sung absolutely hauntingly by Tweedy, signals some connection between the mass apathetic acceptance of our shared material conditions and the proliferation of ahistoricism that stems, at least in part, from the speed with which news and political cycles run right now. For Tweedy, this means there are casualties and they seem to die (or be killed off) in our memories far too easily and swiftly.
A Midwesterner, Tweedy's perspectives on America are most likely to be labelled "progressive," but terms like "empathetic," "realistic" and "disbelieving" might be applicable too. "I'm worried about the way that we're all living," Tweedy sings on "One and a Half Stars," and however personally it might address depression, it reveals the plight of the quiet patriot, wanting to speak out, but unsure anybody's even listening to each other anymore.
So Ode to Joy doesn't quite spring forth as much it ambles into alertness, gently introducing an argument in patiently vague terms. The first glimmer of the band's sunnier pop comes halfway through, with "Everyone Hides," though, with its buried bodies and knives imagery, and tacit encouragement of turtling as a personality trait, the song is still psychologically dark.
"White Wooden Cross" has a Rubber Soul vibe musically, but in its anxiety-induced anticipation of losing someone you love to death, it is starkly human. The stuff we used to not talk about as much, we talk about more, but Tweedy still grapples with cavalier attitudes towards mortality, perhaps even ruminating about how politicians can get away with reducing the scourge of gun violence to mere statistics, without experiencing the real loss of those left behind, suffering because of fixable problems.
On "Citizens" Kotche's tom drums pan left to right in a textured and dizzying piece that again, won't stand on ceremony as American democracy crumbles under the weight of "white lies." Tweedy's rage at a political system is a simmering, careful one, as he's clearly just as angry with the electorate for falling for the fuckery.
"We Were Lucky," on the other hand, sounds ritualistic, a Tonight's the Night-esque flurry of sleep-deprived sound and noise that haunts and stirs the spirit. "Love Is Everywhere (Beware)" features a guitar part that sounds like a wondrous Nels Cline invention. For Tweedy, the song is a hopeful reminder for the desolate, and a warning to the peddlers of hate (who seem to dominate our airspace so much right now) that their cause is small and fleeting.
Ode to Joy is the expression of a deep band and writer and, after some personal and solo explorations, Jeff Tweedy has brought Wilco back to address the world we share, as bluntly as a true poet and musical enigma can. It's a multi-layered affair but each one provokes serious feelings and thoughts for those who peel them back. (dBpm)