Wilco Stick to Stripped Down, Languid Folk Rock Sound on ‘Ode to Joy’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Over the past twenty-five years that Wilco has been recording, the band has released ten albums with many side projects in the interim. Each album has had its own unique soundscape, with the band has offering up alt-country albums like A.M. and Being There, the pop-rock of Summerteeth, the 70’s roots rocker Sky Blue Sky, and the noise-rock of A Ghost is Born and Star Wars. For their eleventh studio album, Ode to Joy, Jeff Tweedy and company have decided to steer in a vein similar to the folk-rock stylings of 2016’s Schmilco. Borrowing the title from Beethoven, the album is meant to provide some optimism in the midst of a soundscape that reflects our current times. 

The new album was mainly written by Tweedy and drummer Glenn Kotche. This fact is immediately apparent from the album’s opener “Bright Leaves”, with a sort of marching beat playing out in a 1-2 rhythm over a down-tuned electric guitar before Tweedy’s vocals join. “Before Us” continues in a similar manner with another downtempo song, the addition of a lap steel adding accents helps lend the song some familiarity of songs past. The album does have some more upbeat tracks in “Everyone Hides” as well as “Love is Everywhere (Beware)”, where the all members can be clearly heard and feel more like Wilco songs. Though much of the album features the stripped back instrumentation that was a cornerstone of Schmilco and Jeff Tweedy’s most recent solo albums, “We Were Lucky” includes some nice electric guitar work in which Nels Cline finally gets to cut loose a little bit between mid-tempo verses.

The simplistic beats seem to be a very conscious choice for the album, as Kotche’s normal mode of deceptively complex percussive rhythms are downplayed. While each member is certainly present on the album, the usual electric guitar riffs and solos by Nels Kline and Pat Sansone have been replaced with more minimalist instrumentation. All in all, Ode to Joy is a solid album, if a bit on the languid side, but feels more like a Jeff Tweedy solo album than a proper Wilco album. After a year that saw two solo albums from Tweedy, Warm and Warmer, Ode to Joy seems like it could have just as easily been titled Warmest or Hot.

Photo credit: Annabel Mehran

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