Wilco - Ode To Joy - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Wilco - Ode To Joy

by Mark Moody Rating:7 Release Date:2019-10-04
Wilco - Ode To Joy
Wilco - Ode To Joy

No doubt Wilco have put out a consistent string of albums over the decades, while also shifting gears here and there - either dramatically or subtly so.  Opinions abound on which albums are their best, but some things are probably fairly settled:  the prettiest one (Sky Blue Sky); the alt-countriest one (A.M.); the iconic one (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot); and on and on and on as Jeff Tweedy once sang.  Not sure where Ode To Joy will stack up in the rearview mirror of history, but at least to date it’s fairly safe to say it's the oddest thing they have done. 

After one of the band’s longer gaps in production, Tweedy returned with not one but two solo albums over the span of the last year.  Albums that were stripped down and as nakedly revealing as anything he has done to date.  Many of Ode To Joy’s songs continue in this vein even if a bit more obfuscated.  But that’s not what makes it a strange little album.  Aside from the already released singles ‘Everyone Hides’ and the even better ‘Love Is Everywhere (Beware)’ which are full band performances, the rest plays out like a Jeff Tweedy and Glenn Kotche series of duets (not vocally from Kotche though - the songs were first constructed by the two of them) with a bit of coloring from the other band members. 

Kotche’s presence is not only heard but felt on most of the songs.  His usual deftness on the drum kit is replaced with a steady pounding of the toms or a cardboard box or some other hollow echoey thing.  This is initially distracting until you get used to it many plays in, assuming you have the patience.  The rest of the band’s contributions are hard to detect until they are showcased.  If you want the Nels Cline guitar freak-out flip to ‘We Were Lucky’, which song also harbors the most psychedelic flourishes.  Acoustic guitars and keys manage to take over on the spritely ‘Hold Me Anyway’ and give way to a Cline solo as Kotche is relegated to softer pads. 

Though the overall approach of the album is unique it does allow for some stunning moments.  As simple of a sentiment that is conveyed on ‘White Wooden Cross’ it could be the group’s loveliest moment on record.  A slightly slurry voiced Tweedy, at his most open-eyed, wonders “what would I do if the white wooden cross meant that I’d lost you”.  In spite of the subject matter, the song has a low key jauntiness to it as Mikael Jorgensen’s piano races to catch up at the end of each verse and things get blurred in the bridges.  It’s an addictive pattern that could have sustained much longer than its scant running time.  And for a band not noted for singles, ‘Love Is Everywhere (Beware)’ is one of their best.  In addition to another plain spoken lyric, Cline’s gentle tangle of strings seems both improbable and at the same time fully ingrained. 

Other songs provide the hallmark for what this album will likely be remembered for, Kotche’s ever present presence.  There seems to be a delicate song under the pound of the opening ‘Bright Leaves’, but it’s as buried as the fallen leaves that are central to the track.  The tribal beat of ‘Quiet Amplifier’ seems to be begging for Johnny Preston’s novelty song ‘Running Bear’ ("ooga booga, ooga booga" ya know) to break free at any moment over its six minute course.  If you happened to skip Tweedy’s solo releases you would think Ode To Joy his most revelatory recorded moment.  He is certainly in fine voice throughout and the halting cadence of songs like ‘Before Us’ are patented Wilco moments.  What initially seems jarring over most of the album may over time and repeated listens become the essence that makes Ode To Joy rare.  Time will tell as certainly as the incessant beat at this album’s heart.   



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