Review Summary: Understated beauty.
My love affair with Wilco began in 2006 with the purchase of a tattered, used copy of Being There
. There was something about the faded artwork that made the stripped down, no-frills rock feel authentic; it was as if I had unearthed a previous generation’s gem that for some reason I’d never heard of. Needless to say, diving into the rest of their discography has been a pleasure – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
, and Wilco
remain semi-classics that each feel inimitable in their own ways. Unfortunately, that’s a sensation that has largely evaded me during Wilco’s modern output – particularly Star Wars
– which felt as flimsy and second-hand as the latter album’s title. Just as I began to grow impatient with the band, writing them off after a half-decade of subpar material, Ode to Joy
reminded me of why I’ll always be susceptible to their charm. It’s their simplest and warmest batch of songs in nearly a decade, and I’m proud to announce that they’ve recaptured their spark.
Ode to Joy
thrives on subtle guitar melodies and superb production. Tweedy’s vocals sink comfortably into the mix, not needing to carry the load on his shoulders as he’s occasionally been asked to do in the past. His voice sounds weary but uplifting, contributing simultaneously to the album’s raw atmosphere as well as its namesake. Each song has a unique groove, with hooks that are just conspicuous enough to draw attention but never so obvious as to be deemed “catchy” – although the penultimate ‘Hold Me Anyway’ comes close. It’s a front porch in the evening sort of record, and in that sense it’s very much akin to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
. Everything unfurls progressively, with tracks blending into one another seamlessly.
To-and-fro drum beats gradually give way to a flickering electric guitar on opener ‘Bright Leaves’, before an anti-climax casts the track into a sea of wavy, distorted pianos. It’s an excellent barometer of what one can expect throughout Ode to Joy
, a piece that deftly balances its assets without ever feeling the need to erupt. One of the best stretches on the entire album starts later with the electric guitar dominated ‘We Were Lucky’ – a track that feels restrained despite its remarkable instrumental display, barely adding in a few sparse-sounding verses between all of the controlled riffing. Then it turns on a dime into the subdued, sprawlingly melodic ‘Love Is Everywhere’; the song still heavily features guitars, but slows the tempo and sprinkles in chime-like piano notes atop the earthy crunch of its drum-driven sonic palette. Right as ‘Hold Me Anyway’ – the frontrunner for radio play if Wilco even gets that anymore – comes to its conclusion, Ode to Joy
again pumps the brakes, opting to close the record out with the forlorn, dreary ‘An Empty Corner.’ Again, it’s that anti-climactic feeling, but one that helps anchor Wilco to what they do best – these beautiful, understated indie-rockers that would feel at home any time one is deep in thought.
Not enough can be said about Ode to Joy
’s mixing. The record sounds absolutely pristine, and the dedication in the studio shows, bringing out every side of Wilco while presenting them in the best possible light. ‘Quiet Amplifier’ is a masterclass in producing/engineering/mixing, and to be frank, it might be the most gorgeous thing they’ve ever recorded – at least from an aesthetic standpoint. Muted drums thump in the distance, while barely audible acoustic guitars are plucked. As the song progresses everything begins to coalesce, from Tweedy’s romance-struck sweetness (“I tried, in my way, to love everyone / I wish your world was mine”), to prominently shimmering acoustics, swelling synths, and piano notes that gently rain down from the sky like droplets of glass. By the end of the song, each of these facets are ringing out in beautiful harmony, but they’re introduced and integrated very subtly. It’s but one instance of how Ode to Joy
is able to elevate itself to the upper echelon of Wilco’s catalog.
Wilco’s eleventh full-length is a love letter to anyone who fell in love with the band’s earliest material. The attention to detail here is noticeable, and whereas many of their later albums have felt pigeonholed as “statements by indie-rock darlings”, this feels more like a retreat or withdrawal. There’s nothing about Ode to Joy
that is meant to set the airwaves afire. It’s raw elegance; a surplus of creativity delivered with equal portions of restraint. This beautiful little gem would look perfectly at-home wedged between Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
and Being There
on my vinyl shelf – and yep, I think that’s right about where it belongs.