Wilco’s ‘Ode to Joy’ lacks… well, joy
Wilco has lived under the shadow of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for almost two decades. Some of their best work (“Impossible Germany,” “One Sunday Morning”) has come after their landmark album, but they’ve struggled to release a full project that measures up to such a lofty expectation. They always will.
Skeletal and moody, Ode to Joy is the most cohesive and consistent Wilco album since Sky Blue Sky. However, it lacks the highs that Wilco are capable of reaching. Maybe it’s wrong to expect Wilco to continue to produce at their high water mark forever, but it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed whenever they put out another capable but unremarkable project. However, if you let go of the expectations Wilco has labored under for the majority of their existence, Ode to Joy is a successful album, always pleasant and often beautiful.
The sonic palette is subtle and tasteful, varied enough to avoid monotony but consistent enough to lend the project an overarching thematic sensation. The songs across the album are made cohesive through a few choice production qualities — crunchy snares, textural guitars, gossamer piano — as well as through their simple, plaintive lyrics. Jeff Tweedy’s voice has always possessed a charmingly wavering, wistful timbre; his aging vocal cords only intensify this quality. Unfortunately, it is possible to have too much of a good thing, as his vocals now evoke frailty and weariness to a degree that can grow irksome.
“Bright Leaves” is a prototypical atmospheric Wilco piece: Instruments flit in and out of the soundscape accompanied by glitchy electronic elements while Jeff Tweedy croons a doleful melody about somewhat cryptic relationship problems. The singles “Everyone Hides” and “Love Is Everywhere (Beware)” are much stronger in the context of the album. The latter, a folksy waltz, is one of the more successful outings on the project, thanks in large part to a vivid guitar riff during the chorus.
Ode to Joy is not perfect. This project is the opposite of catchy — as soon as you stop listening, the memory of any given song fades immediately. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, the album can certainly drift towards tedium, and it dips in quality towards the middle. “White Wooden Cross” is one of the weaker lyrical cuts: Jeff Tweedy, when passing by a roadside memorial, imagines that his loved one is the one whose demise the cross marks. This makes him sad. While such simple moments of imagined grief can be relatable and powerful, Tweedy doesn’t really go much beyond the surface of how those brief flashes of mortality affect us. Sometimes concision is insufficient.
The quality of the lyrics throughout is inconsistent. Sometimes Wilco succeeds in being straightforward and profound: “I’ve tried, in my way, to love everyone” is the type of thoughtful simplicity Wilco tends to excel at. Sometimes they come off as half-baked: “High in an old dead tree / That plastic bag is me / That’s where I want to be” falls well short of the depth and clarity that Jeff Tweedy has shown himself to be capable of in the past.
There is a fine line between pensive and soporific that Wilco spends most of Ode to Joy flirting with. Ode to Joy is weary, the sound of the thoughts that float through your head right before a nap after a long day, the sound of a brisk fall morning as you slowly wake up. I suspect that this album will blossom with reflection and repeated listens. Time will tell.