Wilco arrives at a new, familiar destination on Ode to Joy
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Change is good, at least within the efforts of making music over an extended period of time. And with that time comes the professionalism and the skill to best present that music. Don’t give too much away, don’t fill the space just to fill it, don’t do too much when just enough would be better.
It’s hard not to think about how all those boxes are checked off during “Bright Leaves,” the first song on Ode to Joy, Wilco’s eleventh album. It’s hard to tell if it’s a mantra or a lament, but through that song, Jeff Tweedy gives us the sketch of a relationship, with the refrain of “You never change” repeated, punctuated by the occasional “I never change.”
The changes within Wilco since setting their current lineup in 2004 have been brewing ever since, with the music turning less flashy and giving way to contemplative reflections, reinforced by a spare, direct approach. It’s this path that led us to this album, and listening along feels like an arrival at a new station on the line, a journey built on the continual creative process.
It can be difficult to avoid the temptation to turn every album a band releases into a referendum on the entire catalog. But for a minute there, Wilco didn’t seem the adventurous band they’d been at the beginning of the century. As they wrapped up the first decade of the 2000s with Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album), the music was never bad but didn’t reach for the same dramatic spaces as before. It was good and solid, but the temptation was to say that the moment was over.
But then The Whole Love, bookended by the spacey “Art of Almost” and the hypnotic “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend,” signaled a shift away from a direction that occasionally veered a little too pop. Given the expectations foisted upon a band that had taken Americana and turned it on its head just a few years earlier, those middle albums didn’t feel as exciting as they could have.
“One Sunday Morning,” in particular, was a new kind of daring for the band. Without the aid of much electronics or synthetic tinkering, the song flowed like a slowly building river, picking up pieces on the way without directly altering course. It built verse upon verse upon verse without resolving and without giving the listener so much as a refrain. It was demanding and courageous, and it set the band off on its current path — take that approach, break it into three- and four-minute songs and let the message carry the album.
The transformation that began earlier in the decade carried through Star Wars and Schmilco to our current stop. Where prior works may have been simple for the sake of simplicity, the songs on Ode to Joy take a nearly minimalist approach that draws the listener in, with words and subtle rhythm tracks flowing over all the spaces. From the opening moments of “Bright Leaves,” with Glenn Kotche’s drums declaring a rhythm over a flickering background, guitar buzzing and Tweedy’s repeating “you never change, you never change,” it’s clear that there’s a change here. There’s growth, but also a comforting confidence. And there’s plenty to analyze between the lines.
This is where atmosphere holds sway. The sparse phrasing and repeated refrains of “White lies, white lies” in “Citizens” offers up plenty of room for introspection and interpretation. Tweedy mourns the worst-case possibilities in “White Wooden Cross.” Off-kilter, angular guitar returns to punctuate the pulsating stomp of “We Were Lucky.” In these moments, a new version of Wilco seems to have emerged, slowly morphing through the years from early alt-country darlings to a band that has fully curated its own world and artistic space in which to perform. They built up, then tore down, cultivating this new space where each sound seems to carry the appropriate prominence.
Rather than going simple for the sake of ease, it’s a function of attempting to capture the truest thought with as little interference as possible. This approach is encapsulated on “Quiet Amplifier,” where, over spare instrumentation and a low, breathy voice, Tweedy explains the approach:
“I have a quiet amplifier
Silence seems more true
Every guitar is denied
I’ve tried, in my way, to love you.”
The world isn’t the same place it was in 2001 or 2010, and Tweedy and Wilco aren’t the same band, even if they’re all the same physical beings. There’s growth and there’s regression and there’s sadness and there’s joy. It all exists within the same space, and attempting to over explain it would only lead to more clutter.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org