Wilco – ‘An Ode to Joy’ review: a quietly triumphant return to form

This 11th record sees the veteran alt-rockers subtly reboot their sound, and proves joy can come from simply appreciating the small stuff in life

As album titles go, naming your latest after a classical symphony that redefined the entirety of Western music is, well, ballsy. “I think it’s audacious and sincere,” singer Jeff Tweedy said of Wilco’s choice to borrow the title of their eleventh studio album from Ludwig van Beethoven’s 1824 ‘Ode to Joy’.

Opener ‘Bright Leaves’ is a red herring, the cheerful title at odds with a song that depicts a relationship in which history is sadly repeating itself. “I don’t like / The way you’re treating me,” go the not-so-joyful opening lines. “I never change / You never change,” Tweedy wearily sings, later concluding: “Somehow, we’re bright leaves / You and I beneath the old snow / Being set free by the winter rain.” Hope, with just a tiny glimpse of joy, can momentarily be found – but blink and you’d certainly miss the joy.

After the disappointing ‘Schmilco’, Wilco’s half-baked 10th studio album, ‘Bright Leaves’ feels like a nervous opening. Yet its closing bars mark the beginning of one of Wilco’s most accomplished albums in years. ‘Schmilco’ and its predecessor ‘Star Wars’ suggested that Wilco were floundering: both were the sound of a band figuring out their future in a modern musical landscape weary of guys with guitars. Yet ‘Ode to Joy’ represents a subtle reboot.

Nels Cline’s guitar gets the odd sharp stab of his customary freak-out squall and scream, but it’s in short supply. The lyrics are gentle, and Tweedy’s empathy as a songwriter feels paramount once more. “This terrible stuff is happening, this deepening sense of creeping authoritarianism that weighs on everybody’s psyche on a daily basis,” he’s said of Trump’s America. “You’re allowed to feel a lot of things at once. And one thing that’s worth feeling, that’s worth fighting for, is your freedom to still have joy even though things are going to shit.”

On ‘Before Us’, Tweedy finds hope in reflection, encouraging us to look to history for positivity: “I remember when wars would end”, he reflects against Glenn Kotche’s military-like percussion, which rallies listeners towards a call to peace. On ‘One and a Half Stars’, he empathises with those who’ve stopped communicating with others, living online instead: “I’m worried about the way / We’re all living/ If I stay in bed all day / I won’t escape / My domain.” At the end, though, joy is found when the song’s protagonist uses hope as a catalyst: “I’m left with only my desire to change.”

‘Everyone Hides’, the album’s alt-rock stand-out, is a gorgeous, upbeat realisation of the joy hinted at in its opening stages of the record, as are the later, folkier compositions ‘White Wooden Cross’ and ‘Love is Everywhere (Beware)’. These mediations on love and grief become acts of resistance in themselves. Themes from Tweedy’s recent memoir and extensive solo outings creep through, too – the loss of his parents, addiction and depression, for example. The brutalist percussion of the album’s opener is by now gone.

‘Ode to Joy’ is the culmination of a musical evolution Wilco have been working towards for years. ‘Ode to Joy’ holds a microscope to the small moments of life – which, thanks to the current political landscape, we’re often in danger of missing – and encourages us to see and cherish them.

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