Wilco keeps it fresh as they settle into their elder statesmen role

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by Owen Murray

On their 11th album Ode to Joy, Wilco delivers a subdued but powerful collection of songs featuring some of the band’s most adventurous sonic experiments since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, along with thoughtful, earnest lyrics. Even though few bands embody the dad-rock aesthetic more heavily than Wilco, their music sounds fresh and exciting, and shouldn’t be dismissed by younger listeners.

Ode to Joy follows frontman Jeff Tweedy’s solo debut WARM last year, and its accompanying album WARMER. The album continues in the same welcoming spirit as Tweedy’s solo albums, but the band is able to able to make the sound truly exuberant. 

A lot of what makes Ode to Joy beautiful can be credited to the pristine production and engineering of the album. From the perfect crunching percussion on the foreboding “We Were Lucky” to the ringing piano on “White Wooden Cross,” each instrument sounds fantastic. On “Quiet Amplifier” twinking guitars and steadily building drums create an ethereal crescendo reminiscent of moments on Animal Collective’s “Feels,” but includes some is Wilco’s subtle country twang to boot. It’s a song unlike anything Wilco has created thus far, yet it feels right at home on Ode to Joy.

The ringing guitar solo on “Everyone Hides” is another highlight. The playing isn’t flashy, but the tone is bold and the effects are perfect. The echo and reverb create a gorgeous soaring feeling, bringing the simple solo a larger than life feeling. 

However, the sound can grow a bit flat at times with each instrument strictly constrained to its pocket in the mix. It doesn’t subtract from the quality of the songs or the beauty of each instrument, but the album doesn’t sound as dynamic as it could be. On “White Wooden Cross” the lightly strummed acoustic and the slightly distorted piano both sound fantastic, but also slightly constrained like they are each strictly confined to their own part. Luckily, their own parts are gorgeous and the song is compelling despite its stiffness. 

While Wilco has the reputation of being loved by a bunch of old white dads, the power of their music should transcend their main fan base. Jeff Tweedy and co. by no means pander to the dad-rock crowd. The band has just as much reason to be loved by young people as their alternative-folk contemporaries Sufjan Stevens and Phil Elverum who are loved for their ambitious and down to earth styles. Even as Wilco work their way to elder-statesman status, they sound fresh and creative.

Despite its title, Ode to Joy isn’t a celebration or an overt expression of happiness. Rather, it is a search for joy amid bleak times. On “Before Us,” Tweedy reminisces about a time when wars used to end saying, “now when something’s dead we try to kill it again.” Tweedy’s despair is just as clear on “One and a Half Stars” where he seems to be stuck in isolation and depression, singing “I can’t escape my domain.” In contrast, the instrumentation of the song contrasts with the lyrics and brings a sense of optimism and comfort. The lead single “Love is Everywhere (Beware)” finds power in love, and turns it into a threat. “Love is here, beware.” It’s not clear who the threat is directed to, but the song feels unifying; where there is love, there is power. 

Ode to Joy is a surprisingly powerful addition to Wilco’s lengthy discography that shows the band continuing to subtly evolve as they move into the third decade of their career. With some of their most powerful songwriting to date, along with gorgeous instrumentation Ode to Joy is one of 2019’s folk-rock highlights.

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