It feels that for the last decade Wilco have been struggling to find their footing. That sounds rather ridiculous to say given the powerful unit of musicians that have occupied the space within the Chicago band since 2004. They’re like this band of wizards backing one of our generations greatest songwriters, Jeff Tweedy. But as someone’s uncle once said, “With great power comes great responsibility”. Even with a band filled with musical wizards, Wilco just hasn’t found that exquisite groove. That perfect spot where art and accessibility come together; pop masterpieces wrapped in bloody gauze and a half-hearted smile. Not that they haven’t tried. They’ve even succeeded in releasing some great songs on some so-so records. 2015s Star Wars came close to that perfect album run between 1996 and 2004.
After the quiet and muted Wilco Schmilco in 2016, Jeff Tweedy and his band of musical wizards have settled into a subtle but lovely lull on their new album Ode To Joy. Ode To Joy is a whisper of an album, but one that hides intricate sonics under the surface of folks-y tunes. Lush arrangements surround Jeff Tweedy’s songs; his acoustic guitar and voice the skeleton while Cline, Sansone, Stirrat, Kotche and Jorgensen flesh out the bones with an almost psychedelic swirl of sound. This is the best Wilco album since 2004s masterpiece A Ghost Is Born. Wilco have found that exquisite groove once again.
The first single “Love Is Everywhere(Beware)” felt like a lot of what’s come before it; loping rhythm, breezy melodies, and Jeff Tweedy’s kind but leery narrator sharing(or warning) “Our love is everywhere”. Had this track ended up at the beginning of the album it wouldn’t have been as effective, but it lays at the end of an album filled with nuance and strange calm. Sitting at the end of Ode To Joy gives it a kind of power. Most of the record are songs that feel like machines slowly building to their crescendo. Waking beasts yawning at the sun’s first rays. “Quiet Amplifier” builds on a subtle motorik beat as sonic bits make their presence known; jangly guitar lines, swaths of synth, and a looming moment of enlightenment. It’s a lush build up that pays off in spades. “Before Us” has a dusty, Midwestern grit to it. It harkens back to old, folks-y Wilco. Led by Tweedy’s lone acoustic blanketed in pedal steel, simple percussion, and subtle electronic effects, Tweedy’s refrain of, “Alone with the people who have come before us” weighs heavy in the air long after the song ends.
The lone whimsical pop rock standout is the fun “Everyone Hides”. Complete with a video where the band plays a serious game of hide and seek using all of Chicago as a playground, the song is a toe tapper. Wilco could easily put out a best of collection of just their power pop nuggets and this track would easily make the cut.
“We Were Lucky” is a wobbly and dream-like march of a track that talks about Jeff’s wife’s battle with cancer. It’s actually the grittiest of the tracks on here bringing to mind Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and in turn Wilco’s own “At Least That’s What You Said”. There’s also some Loose Fur vibes in here as well. As Jeff Tweedy sings “I was yours/And you didn’t mind/being mine” there’s some serious gritty guitar lines that build to a classic Nels Cline freakout.
Ode To Joy is still a subtle, quiet record. But what Wilco have figured out after 15 years as a band full of musical wizards is how to make intimate tracks sound lush, big, and all-encompassing. Jeff Tweedy is still one of our absolute great songsmiths. A songwriter with a heart full of holes, but he’s filling those holes with the sound of life and love for seemingly everyone. Feels good to be excited for a Wilco album again.
8.4 out of 10