The music of Wilco has always differentiated itself from contemporary rock in its unabashed sincerity. This sincerity reaches an apex on their 11th studio album, the understated but masterful Ode to Joy.
How many bands from the mid-90s are making good music today?
It is hard to undervalue artistic consistency in rock music. With a few notable exceptions (Spoon, Radiohead, Sleater-Kinney), musical acts from the end of the past century tend to have tapered off, touring off the legacy of one or two great albums and repeatedly releasing mediocre projects until eventually going on “indefinite hiatus.” Wilco could easily have succumbed to this same phenomenon, resting on the (well-deserved) critical praise for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Summerteeth and refusing to change their formula until listeners finally got tired of hearing the same thing. It is a great credit to this band that, 11 albums in, they refused to do so.
Ode to Joy eschews some of the more complex visions and abstractions of frontman Jeff Tweedy’s previous work, and instead opts for directness. The verses are concerned with quotidian existence and deal with the feelings which accompany 21st century life. Tweedy’s lyrical content creates the universal from the specific: getting stoned and laying in bed all day, losing the thread in a story you’re telling somebody, listening to the birds singing while you’re thinking about your lover. The emotional impact is exacerbated by the stripped-back instrumentation and the intimacy of the production, and these events carry with them an emotional weight which could never be matched by simply reading the words off of a page.
Adding to the gravitas, these congenial images of occidental life are presented alongside ruminations on modern American political anxieties, more often than not on the same song. On “Before Us,” for example, lyrics about front doors and silverware abruptly change to nostalgic remembrance for the days when “wars would end.” This switch seems abrupt until one realizes that Tweedy is simply holding a mirror to our own mercurial minds, assigning the same importance to mundane routine as to the imperative problems of our time.
Tweedy’s ponderous pacifism is also present on the classic Wilco song “War on War,” from the incredible Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. But while the older song melancholically accepts that its own advocacy is doomed to defeat, and stews in this fact singularly, “Before Us” finds distraction and meaning in the routine of daily life. The difference between the two songs is indicative of a greater theme on Ode, an album which rhapsodizes the comforts of simplicity in life when faced with an uncomfortable and uncaring world. On album highlights like “Love Is Everywhere (Beware)” and “Hold Me Anyway,” Tweedy’s fixation is love — even in its most desperate forms of longing — as a provider of purpose.
The beauty of Ode to Joy is in its subtleties. This album doesn’t contain relentless affirmations of happiness, but it holds a melancholy joy that defies comparison. It doesn’t try to push out the boundaries of its genre, but opts to fully explore and flesh out what is inside of them. With this album, Wilco created a simple and beautiful contribution to the canon of folk/rock music, and one accessible enough that there is no excuse for not listening to it as soon as you get the chance.
Richard Beezley is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]