Restrained and thoughtful
The Chicago-based band Wilco has been making music since 1994. Their eleventh album—Ode to Joy—is a reminder of why this band has persisted making music for so many years. The album is elegantly restrained and full of emotion that lies just beneath its rough-hewn sound.
The first thing you hear on the album is the startling and inviting thud of a floor tom. The deep and hollow tone of the drum nicely sets up the album to come. The remainder of “Bright Leaves” after that initial floor tom is a cold meditation on change. “I never change. You never change” sings lead singer Jeff Tweedy supported by that unchanging floor tom on two and four. His whisper-like singing and the sometimes fuzzy-sounding guitars feel like they are never going to change either, but in this case, that’s good. The song is like a comfortable chair that you slip into to think.
The entire album feels like it’s giving voice to your own interiority. The title Ode to Joy is ironic because the album is hardly a celebration of joy. It is more like an empathetic contemplation of melancholy. “So what I stay in bed all day? I can’t escape my domain” Tweedy sings in “One and a Half Stars.” The song is full of confusion and frustration as Tweedy sings “I’m left with only my desire to change.” The song “One and a Half Stars” and other songs on the album feature prominently Tweedy’s singing and rely on few other instruments. The drums and guitar slowly build in intensity as Tweedy contemplates, eventually resolving himself that he “won’t escape [his] domain.” Even as the song builds in intensity, it feels as if the band is holding back, but lends even more power to the feeling of the song. Ode to Joy isn’t a loud album, but it is a rewarding one if one is willing to listen carefully.
“Everyone Hides” which comes at about halfway through the album provides a neat contrast to the heavier tone of preceding songs. It’s quicker tempo and addition of tambourine feel more exciting, but lyrically the song fits into the album’s themes of distance and loneliness. “Deep inside/ everyone hides” Tweedy sings.
The six songs after “Everyone Hides” see Wilco showing off their skill working with the album’s tone. The lyrics on the album are certainly interesting, but in some cases unintelligible. Rather, the tone of Tweedy’s voice is more important for conveying the feeling of the song. This is something Wilco does very well on the album. They have crafted a very deliberate feeling on the album as if you are looking out the window on a rainy day. It is both cold and comforting. By the time the album ends with “An Empty Corner,” whose warm acoustic guitar shifts tone just a bit, you don’t want to leave. However, it seems like Tweedy is speaking directly to this feeling, reassuringly, that “you’ve got family out there.” After the sorrowful album, it is a hopeful turn to make, and so the album’s title becomes fitting.