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“DD Review: Wilco – Ode to Joy.”

Score: 9.5/10

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This new Wilco record Ode to Joy is an eclectic record. Now, this is an important fact, discursively, and it’s also an ironic fact, because just the same Ode to Joy is a very brooding, personal record, in every way an akin companion piece to Jeff Tweedy’s solo album WARM of last year. And I think, ultimately, this marks an interesting head we’ve come to in the life arc of rock and roll — that prior middle ground between “experimental” and “real” has eroded away to where there’s not that default stylistic playbook to rest on before baring yourself. As Neil Young once said, “Some get strong / Some get strange / Sooner or later it all gets real”.

Just yesterday I listened to the surprisingly pithy, funny and crunchy Mudhoney mini-LP [1] Morning in America, and thought about putting an article together about it (I still might, I suppose). The band sounded clear, they grooved along with reckless abandon: the only problem I found with it, other than it being so noxiously apocalyptic and caustic, which should hardly come as a shock to anyone, was that a couple of the songs really REMINDED me of a couple tunes from their past, specifically “No One Has” and “If I Think.” Appropriately enough, both these cuts spring from their first release, Superfuzz Bigmuff, which was also a short player.

Ode to Joy firmly, ebulliently and boisterously avoids this trap in strident style: this is a defiantly, vividly new-sounding record, the sort of wistful sense of songwriting nodding peripherally at Schmilco cuts like “If I Ever Was a Child,” but also a way more uncomfortable record than that ’16 release, draped seemingly throughout with dissonant ribbons of guitar periphery, poignant lap steel solos and, I think, the loudest snare sound ever put to wax by this band. Yeah, nobody would mistake them with grunge, in general, I guess.

“Bright Leaves” kicks off right away what I describe as “ribbons of ephemeral guitar,” for lack of better way to describe it, and again you notice those booming drums which only seem to defiantly say on the part of Tweedy “This isn’t my solo record.” The mood, though, is once again incredibly down, as if the very mention of the concept of “joy” should impart humor, if not mockery, on the part of the listener, that “joy” being apparently a distant memory though still clear enough to reference, which is often how life juxtaposes things.

“Before Us” ups the ante in terms of melody as a second track should do. Lyrically, its primary focus is war, with Tweedy weaving things toward the unfortunate conclusion of “Now when something’s dead / We try to kill it again”. The guitar duo here of jangly, riff-wielding lead and wilting lap steel is nothing short of gorgeous, and Tweedy himself in his singing almost sounds astonished by it, as if seceding song centrality, implicitly all the while. Of primary importance in terms of what the band accomplishes here, one of the album’s stronger tracks, is achieving less with more: every little sweep of the music’s mood is accentuated by an allegory lack of gratuitous notes or statements, Tweedy’s voice even gaining or letting intensity as the occasion dictates.

“One and a Half Stars” is more immersing, melancholy singer-songwriter fare before the slightly exploratory “Quiet Amplifier,” a six-minute track of gentle feedback, a tense, unsure snare beat (reminiscent vaguely of The National) and generally a much richer texture. Jeff Tweedy then steps in, as he’s fully capable of doing, with some full-fledged bare expression of desire: “I wish your world was mine”. In time, the track devolves into this beautiful sort of guitar battle royale between what sounds like a twangy pedal steel and Nels Kline’s Jazzmaster, thicker and subtler in the background. This is a track that it’s easy to gloss over for Tweedy’s delicate, almost moribund vocal style: I noticed a lot more about it on my second listen.

“Everyone Hides” and “White Wooden Cross” saunter along as more nondescript, gentle folk rock before “Citizens,” another champion seventh track in the band’s catalogue right along “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “Wishful Thinking,” fitting in still with this album’s somber style and deliberate pace, all the while. “Citizens” is a track on which the introductory beauty hits you right away, clearly and unmistakably, an ironic common point it might have with “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” while being at the same time a very different sort of tune [most songs are different from “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” in my experience]. Somewhat refreshingly, Glenn Kotche loosens up a little bit for the drum beat, which takes on a bluesy, R&B-like swagger, and struts along in a sassy six-eight, at least by Wilco’s and Ode to Joy’s standards. The melody itself, then, which randomly reminds me of Mike Doughty’s “I Hear the Bells” in a good sort of way, is shared with beautiful tandem by John Stiratt’s booming but organic bass and Nels Kline’s disciplined, academic guitar runs, such as the composition of a chamber quartet composed for a rock band, roughly. Throughout the song, the chord progression, though simple, offers sporadic variations of cathartic completeness, peppering the song with an undeniable excellence in all of its lazy cattiness. True to form, “Citizens” brandishes a chorus, wherein the only words are “White lies / White lies”, which in no way hogs the spotlight, rather acknowledging what’s come before in tense obedience. When it’s all said and done, the track has capped itself off at a trim three minutes which goes down like a shot of whiskey but will still provide plenty of opportunities for the in the way of parsing, analyzing and most of all just enjoying. And the thing with enjoying Ode to Joy, replete with the test in abrasion of “We Were Lucky” and the anthemic, precocious “Love is Everywhere (Beware)” is that the enjoyment, with the album’s plangent emotion, will always come with a firm dose of accompanying reality. It’s an “ode” to joy, after all, and not a ham-handed stab at joy’s prospective or idealistic omnipresence.

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[1] They call it an EP on Sub Pop and on the band’s Facebook but it actually is a 12-inch and spans over 20 minutes, so it is a mini-LP like Kanye’s Ye.

 

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