In allowing a bit of discomfort into their music, Wilco may yet rediscover what made them so captivating in the first place.
Something happened to Jeff Tweedy in the span of time between Wilco’s last album, the pleasant-yet-slight Schmilco, and now. Previously, it seemed as if the man had slid into a fairly comfortable groove following the solidification of Wilco’s stature as one of the Great American Rock Bands in the early 2000s. Recent Wilco releases could be characterized as pleasant, relaxing, and far from the kind of challenging work that won them so many plaudits in the first place. But since 2016, something has awoken in Jeff Tweedy’s work that hasn’t been there in a while. It started with his solo album WARM, which was far better than anyone would have expected from him, and it continues with Ode to Joy, an album that finds Wilco returning tentatively into the somewhat avant-garde realm in which their best work was created.
If anything separates Ode to Joy from recent Wilco work, it’s the sense of unease that pervades much of the album. Originally, this seemed to come across as a natural byproduct of Tweedy’s songwriting, something borne out of his youthful insecurities and the substances he used to escape them. That’s not present on Ode to Joy, though. Instead, the uncertain elements here are more deliberate, less the result of uncontrolled bursts of emotion and more the product of carefully considered composition. In fact, for as natural as the album presents itself, Ode to Joy is the most studied Wilco has been for quite some time. Even at its most unstructured, as on the noisy “We Were Lucky,” Wilco still performs with a sense of purpose that they haven’t had for a while. Some might balk at how methodical the band can be here, but they’ve managed to display energy and a sense of adventure in the process.
This isn’t to say that Wilco has magically made another Being There or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in their later years. Ode to Joy isn’t a late-career masterpiece, but then again, Wilco aren’t necessarily trying to make one of those, anyway. Some aspects of late-period Wilco remain completely intact here. Tweedy continues to sing in his lower register, barely rising above a whisper. The band still makes time for likable-yet-disposable pop rock, as well: single “Everyone Hides” could have come from any one of the previous three Wilco albums, to be honest. But even when writing in his most conventional mode, Tweedy’s songs here have a verve to them that can only come from writing with a clear purpose and idea. Whether he’s considering life as a widower on “White Wooden Crosses” or decrying the state of American politics on so many other songs on the album, Tweedy is trying to say something. He hasn’t made a strident political statement of an album (which probably would have been a bad idea), but after spending years of writing music for its own sake, it’s good to see that Tweedy still has some things he can only say in song.
Admittedly, I’ve been hard on Wilco’s late-period material on this website, but Ode to Joy only further emphasizes how disappointing the likes of Sky Blue Sky and Star Wars really were. Wilco may not have ever been the Great American Rock Band people thought they were, but they are certainly capable of greatness, and this album’s intermittent flashes make it the most enjoyable that Wilco has been in years. In allowing a bit of discomfort into their music, Wilco may yet rediscover what made them so captivating in the first place.