Wilco Haven’t Just Endured, They’ve Gotten Better
‘Ode To Joy’ cements their legacy as the greatest band of our time.
By Josh Terry
Jeff Tweedy is currently in one of the most impressive creative streaks of his career. The last five years for the Wilco frontman and Chicago artist have been astoundingly prolific. In 2014, the band he formed with his son Spencer, Tweedy, released an excellent double album called Sukierae. Later there were back-to-back Wilco albums with 2015’s noisy Star Wars and 2016’s irreverent and understated Schmilco. The half-decade also saw the release of a trio of Tweedy solo records including 2017’s Together At Last, an acoustic reimagining of his catalog, plus a pair of scrappy new LPs in 2018’s WARM and its 2019 follow-up WARMER. Take all that plus his 2018 memoir Let’s Go Back (So We Can Get Back) and other surprising artistic detours, and Tweedy looks unstoppable.
Wilco’s eleventh album Ode To Joy, out Friday, is the stunning culmination of this run. It’s the kind of LP that showcases a band finding new ways to stay relevant as it’s passing the quarter-century mark. The music is weary, but it’s also the prettiest entry in the Chicago outfit’s vast discography, one that synthesizes every era of the band’s career into something forward-thinking and essential. Here, Tweedy’s songwriting is at his most observational, musing on death, finding hope in the miserable state of the world, and stability in his wife and family. His band, which has had the same lineup for nearly half of Wilco’s entire history, is the best it’s ever been. Even though these are largely quiet arrangements (like the subtle acoustic strums in “One and a Half Stars”), the musicianship is outstanding.
Risks are necessary for a band that’s been around this long and they’ve consistently been an important part of Wilco’s DNA. Every album in their catalog boasts substantial sonics tweaks, with 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot being the most obvious example: an LP that so daringly added elements of the Chicago experimental scene that their record label refused to put it out, even though it is now arguably Wilco’s most cherished body of work. Recent LPs like Star Wars and Schmilco have attempted to blow up the formula entirely with their winking humor and purposefully challenging arrangements like the delightfully wonky “EKG” and “Common Sense.”
As Wilco’s frontman, Tweedy is of two minds about this. In interviews, he frequently jokes about alienating the band’s longtime fans. (And sometimes, like when Wilco releases an album with a cartoon cat on the cover or calls their album Schmilco it doesn’t feel like Tweedy is kidding about pissing off diehard fans). But he’s long understood that trying new things is the only way to have his songs relate to new people, and Tweedy’s one defining ethos as a songwriter is reaching out. He recently said to Spin, “I look at every record, and every opportunity to perform, as an effort to make a connection, to reach out and invite as many people as you can get to pay attention. Otherwise, I don’t know what the point is.”
Ode To Joy is Wilco’s invitation. Lead single “Love Is Everywhere (Beware)” is one of the most comforting tracks Tweedy’s ever written, but since it’s a Jeff Tweedy song, it never transcends cautious optimism. Punctuating guitarist Nels Cline’s swirling and gentle leads, Tweedy sings, “Right now, I’m frightened how / Love is here, beware / Our love is everywhere.” Written around the time of the first Women’s March, Tweedy tells Stereogum he remembers thinking that day, “[I was] Feeling encouraged, it was a beautiful day, it was amazing seeing everybody out, but then also starting to panic that everybody thinks this is going to do something.” Like the best Wilco songs, it’s world-weary but it also finds the beauty in malaise.
Tweedy began work on Ode To Joy by first just enlisting drummer Glenn Kotche, who was tasked with adding the most minimal percussion to the demos. Those base tracks became the framework for the rest of the band to overdub, tacking on but never overloading subtle additions to these almost uniformly stark recordings. The result is the band’s most folk-based collection of songs. As Kotche’s cymbal-less percussion plods on the moody opener “Bright Leaves,” Tweedy sings of “You and I beneath the old snow / Being set free by the winter rain / And I know it’ll never change.” It’s a beautiful way to kick off the LP and the following tracklist features countless moments of subdued transcendence. The political “Citizens” has an arrangement that wouldn’t feel out of place on Palace Music’s Viva Last Blues and the slinkingly fun “Everyone Hides” is a near-perfect upbeat Wilco single.
Over their career, Wilco has been known for great opening lines in songs from “I dreamed about killing you / And it felt alright to me’ on “Via Chicago” to “I am an American aquarium drinker” on “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” Here it’s no different, especially on the highlight and Summerteeth evoking “Hold Me Anyway” in “So, you might not give a damn / I’m like a hologram / Light is all I am.” On closer “Empty Corner” it gets even more memorable: “Eight tiny lines of cocaine / left on a copy machine / In an empty corner of a dream / my sleep could not complete.” It’s already an evocative line but even more resonant considering Tweedy’s in-the-rearview struggles with addiction.
The way that remarkable track wraps up Ode To Joy recalls the time George Saunders wrote of Tweedy, “Jeff is, to my mind, a warrior for kindness, who has made tenderness an acceptable rock-and-roll virtue.” Later in the track, Tweedy sings, “How sad / If only / Don’t believe you don’t care / You got family out there.” It’s a compassionate and humane song, one that sums up Wilco’s resilience since 1994. Even as their careers and lives evolved drastically, to Tweedy and his bandmates, there’s a life-affirming joy in still giving a shit.