ALBUM REVIEW: Wilco Marches on with ‘Ode To Joy’

The indie monolith’s 11th LP is a restrained but relentless symphony.

Always love a Wilco album. That’s an opinion, not an instruction. But if you’ve been here since the start, you’ll know. 

Weirdly, though, I’m always a bit underwhelmed by the news. I find it hard to get excited. The buzz around a new Wilco record never hits home with me. I know it’s coming, but so what? Then it lands and I ignore it for a week or two. Another Wilco album. So what? Then I buy a copy, because someone mentions it, or I read about it somewhere and I think, Oh, I should get that or I’ll have a gap. Then I ignore it for a week or two more because, so WHAT? There’s more pressing stuff to listen to. 

But then I give in. It’s been ignored enough. And I find myself needing to know. Is it going to be all McCartney melody and ’70s pop energy? Is it a return to alt-country? Or is it edgy and experimental, bordering on psychosis?

And no matter what they do, I find myself in love with it from the first listen, and mad at myself for not playing it on the day of release. Why didn’t I pre-order and rip the cellophane off the moment it arrived? Even the disappointing ones have been excellent. 

Ode To Joy feels like a completion of a trilogy with 2015’s Star Wars and 2016’s Schmilco. Like those two albums, Jeff Tweedy’s got the melodies in place but the arrangements are hushed and fractious, awkward and skronky. It’s quiet and restrained. Wilco have never been Led Zeppelin, but this one seems restrained even by those standards. Album opener “Bright Leaves starts off with a minimal backbeat and some scraped guitar strings.  But we’re not in Sonic Youth territory either. 

The drums are relentless though. Like marching feet. And with the political climate in the U.S. and Europe being what it is, those marching feet could present a significant threat. 

Wilco’s sabbatical is over, though, and Tweedy’s extra-curricular projects have paid off. This record was never going to swell to Beethoven levels of pomp and majesty; it is Wilco after all. Neither did Star Wars reach for George Lucas’ epic proportions (or Reagan’s weapons program for that matter). Trust Wilco to undermine such gargantuan works. The hush of their music belies the emotional weight behind each project. 

This isn’t rock ‘n’ roll. It isn’t country either. While Beethoven raises our spirits with the sheer wonderment of that symphony, Wilco do the same with a set of songs that traverse an emotional landscape as those marching feet thunder out of the fringes and into the centre. Authority takes hold. We have no choice but to stand up or become complicit in our silence. 

Somehow, the slight nature of the music, the relentless percussion and Tweedy’s reassuring voice combine to create a fractured, but undeniable ode to joy. 

Score: 💡💡💡💡💡 / 5