Ode To Joy
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Every three years for the past two decades Wilco has been releasing records. Their LPs range from their genre-defining alt-country to experimental to quiet crowd pleasers. But with their new, eleventh record Ode To Joy, the band enters a new genre. Wilco has made a protest record.
In the official press statement that accompanies the release of Ode To Joy, frontman Jeff Tweedy wrote a long message about “[the] deepening sense of creeping authoritarianism [weighing] on everybody’s psyche.” So he reminds us “you’re allowed to feel a lot of things at once.” Ode To Joy, Tweedy declares, is about “your freedom to still have joy even though things are going to shit.”
Wilco’s roots are in folk music—the original protest genre—and they’ve been a quiet band as of late, so you need to listen closely. Tweedy’s vocals have never sounded more garbled and breathy, and yet it was composed this way on purpose. Ode To Joy started as sonic sketchings between Tweedy and Wilco’s longtime drummer and percussionist Glenn Kotche. Behind every track is a consistent one-two beat meant to mimic marching, “a powerful act utilized on both sides of the authoritarian wall” Tweedy writes.
The oompah background provides the band with a quintessential protest pallet to work with, where the beat and instrumentation remain minimal to highlight and elongate the message. (Think Guthrie and Dylan.)
Lead single “Love Is Everywhere (Beware)” is an off-putting introduction to the album. When I first heard it on the radio in July I was skeptical. It sounded complacent and too upbeat, causing me to roll my eyes at the idea that “love is everywhere.” But I understand the craving and need for joy, or laughter, in a time of crisis and impending doom. It’s hard to be optimistic, but not wrong.
Ode To Joy opens with a heavy down beat on “Bright Leaves” and the stage is set for slow boiling melodies to simmer under flash ballads. Each instrumentalist takes liberties building a collective clatter that finds its pattern and just how to squeeze and twist it.
On track two, “Before Us,” the message becomes much clearer. “Alone with the people who come before us,” Tweedy chants. “I’m high for the people who have come before us. ...I remember when wars would end / remember when wars would end?” It’s a question I haven’t been able to put down since I first heard it. Then he sings, “Now when’s something dead,” he sings “we try to kill it again.”
The tones of joy showcased across this record are balanced out and, really, tainted by the cruel realities Tweedy is highlighting. Compared to past Wilco records though, Tweedy’s lyrics have become much more subtle, less complicated, and have lost definition in their narratives. Ode To Joy feels like the march Tweedy and Kotche intended, but it can feel never-ending (perhaps intended or not?). Without context, the repetition gets daunting and the lyrics act like a puzzle.
It’s on “Quiet Amplifier” where the crescendos and composition finally entwine and stick the landing. The LP’s longest song at almost six minutes, Kotche’s march doubles its pace, the guitars flutter below, and Jorgensen’s keys shimmer. Tweedy slowly comes in and groans, “I wish your world was mine.” The bridge is a built up chorus of jingling and twiddling in the oldest of Wilco fashions. Tweedy then delivers the most relatable line on the record “I wouldn’t mind feeling fine,” before the band finally starts coloring outside the lines.
“Everyone Hides” was released as the second single with a charming, playful music video contradicting the opening lines, “You know where the bodies are buried / but you can’t remember where you buried the mines.” Tweedy’s familiar existentialism pops up on “White Wooden Cross,” as he sings, “Tell me no lies / Is it stranger to live? / Is it stranger to die? /Is it stranger to be alive?” And by “Citizens,” the underlying churning reaches its best rotation and there are no more shadows: “Women and men / Citizens / Carry your own cross / Careless / Care less / You are the albatross.”
On “We Were Lucky,” Tweedy and Nels Cline finally stretch their guitar strings like I know they can. Nels extends the record’s universe, building up a screech towards a much needed crackle for Wilco fans jonesing for some kind of jam or crunch. It’s a familiar breakdown of sound that gives Ode To Joy its much-needed edge. Protest however you want, but without grabbing my attention, I might not notice.
“Everything is designed to be authoritarian,” Tweedy writes about the record. “There is a sense of foreboding but there’s also a desire to have some comfort, and to me that marching sound is really pleasing, almost like a heartbeat or something elemental … I’m not saying I’m depicting the current American landscape, I’m just trying to have something feel the way I feel when I think about it.”
The moment I think about most is on “Hold Me Anyway.” Tweedy peels off his own skin and sings, “High in an old dead tree / That plastic bag is me / That’s where I want to be.” A recovered addict wishing for the sweet release, even if it’s a craving triggered by a familiar image of tangled garbage, is too intimate to overhear.
On “Hold Me Anyway,” Tweedy finally sings the line we’ve been waiting to hear from him for years. It’s the line we protest with in public or confide to each other at home: “I’m freaking the fuck out.” It’s an unexpected Wilco surprise, let alone on an album called Ode To Joy. But it’s rewarding to look to artists, or any public figure, for advocacy and find a champion.
Notable Tracks: "Hold Me Anyway" | “Quiet Amplifier” | "We Were Lucky" | “White Wooden Cross”