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“On Wilco and Chicago and the 2020’s and Reality”

Wilco’s last album, Ode to Joy (2019), seems perfect for this day on which I’m writing this. It’s my one day off of the week, a Monday, cloudy and noticeably cooler than any day that we’ve had since June. Since the weekend is over, the craze and buzz of football has receded, giving way to officious miscellany. 

It’s a day of trudging through the motions, a day of waiting for the day to end, a smidgen too early in the week to make any plans for the weekend or know what the weather will be like. Or, if you have the day off, like me, it’s a good day to “stay in bed all day”; “Alone with the people who have come before us”; a la Ode to Joy rhetoric within its stark, textural and almost impossibly melancholy side A. 

And no, I’m not staying in bed all day, despite there being two pretty solid songs about that exact activity, the other being Morrissey’s hilarious “Spent the Day in Bed” (he brandishes the troubling quip of “I’m not my type / But I love my bed”). But, let’s face it, it’s a zeitgeist. I smacks of the shutdown, of Chicago and everybody being on humanity overload, of cloudiness, of Mondays, of that day you didn’t plan but that came anyway.

And on this particular bored day off of mine (obviously, nobody gets into kitchen work for the schedule), I had the thought of going to the University of Chicago, which is 90 or so miles west of my hometown where I live now, and just walking around and doing or seeing ANYTHING. I’ve been slightly derogative of the Windy City on this blog for reasons that have to do with their sports franchises being really boorish and near-sighted, in my opinion, and for lack of restaurant quality and variety. The University of Chicago, as it were, flippin’ rocks. I’ve got an especial affinity for it seeing as it houses what was the last time I checked the fifth-ranked MA in English program. It boasts Saul Bellow, novelist of the gripping Herzog and countless pithy, urban short stories, as a former student and professor. The library staff is friendly, the college-aged, blonde girls in the bookstores are singularly beautiful and smiling, harboring what can only manifest as a startling lack of spite for humanity compared with other environs, and, overall, being on that campus, it feels like we really got something right, after all. 

Well, then the 2020’s rolled around. Now we’re in a reality where nothing is certain — nobody is sure when this current pandemic will end, or IF it will end, or if it won’t be replaced by another one, once it’s gone. Climate change is a rattling gossamer, the Earth is hotter than it’s ever been and people are inhabiting Greenland with a record prevalence. (I personally casually harbor the half-theory that COVID was caused by some phenomenon related to the polar ice caps breaking, similar to the concept of taking a whole chicken out of the freezer and throwing it on the kitchen floor, but I’m definitely not a scientist.) There hasn’t been a big war in a discomfiting amount of time, too, and even though we’re enjoying a pretty decent economic time right now, I’m pretty sure everyone with any brain knows it’s an ostensible house of cards, the value of the dollar likewise. 

But Wilco’s last album, and especially the brooding, defiantly slow and somber side A, is still sovereign and even contains the uncanny quality of seeming to presage the sedentary, moribund lifestyle of a pandemic shutdown, despite having come in 2019. Also, victoriously, the band did get in a full-bodied, sonically stalwart tour before all this madness hit, a couple falls ago, bequeathing most notably the great Brooklyn Steel show which is viewable on YouTube in its entirety, ad-free, and which I sincerely hope comes to provide the band’s second live album. This is especially the case because Kicking Television: Live in Chicago is such a resounding success and also, criminally, the only live release of their career. 

We’re not living in an age of fools. Well, it’s almost like we’ve come full circle back to an age of fools, with everybody wading uncomfortably into the disposition that being earnest and enlightened is “played out.” The proletariat longs for blood, sure, longs for “dirty laundry,” as Don Henley might say. But Ode to Joy observes no party lines. My neo-Nazi uncle down in South Carolina could just as well enjoy it as a U of C student. (Actually, it’s probably more likely that he’d enjoy it than a college student, given the generational gap I’m all but ignoring here, partly out of my own ambition to be younger.)

In our quest for victory, we’re tasked with the masses, and we’re shrouded in reality. But Ode to Joy, much like the music of my former favorite band, Califone, stands as a universal, egalitarian mental antidote, and American music is more sovereign than it’s ever been in its history. Under its effect, rather than necessarily making sense, the world slows, the antipathetic forces doing absurd, senseless battle with each other rescind, and a river of nurturing tranqulity runs through every day, or, at least, September 20, 2021, in the American Midwest. 

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