Over the first half of their career, Wilco slowly got stranger, moving from their alt-country roots through more experimental indie rock while embracing various sorts of studio trickery. Songwriter Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics took on a certain opacity, his impressionism serving his songs better than direct representation. With 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, the group changed direction, moving away from their experimentation to – for the most part – write more traditional sorts of songs. That narrative doesn’t match the recordings exactly, and new album Ode to Joy shows a band ready to merge both halves of their career with an album that offers the casual accessibility of the group’s recent years while containing the studio care that turns it into a sort of headphone-folk album.
Drummer Glenn Kotche deserves attention here in unexpected ways. For a folk-rock album, the percussion is oddly forward. Kotche, whose own avant-garde recordings disappear behind the prominence of his band’s work, steps back from his Frankenkit, at least in sensibility if not in practice. The drums sound big but uncomplicated; the songs stride forward steadily as if Kotche, Tweedy, and everyone else insist on getting where they’re going. Tweedy sings straightforward songs over the beat, an approach in which Schmilco continues to resonate.
It’s not that simple, though, as the band builds all sorts of little constructs onto the songs. Guitarist Nels Cline frequently moves around in the background, finding flourishes to create a mood rather than indulging his more outre tastes. Although “We Were Lucky” happily unleashes him just enough. At times, this approach rewards attentive listening, headphones on, and mind tuned strictly to the music. At other times, the songs get swallowed up in their deliberation. “Before Us” walks that line, nearly drifting enough to warrant the use of a skip button, yet building up an atmosphere though guitars and unidentifiable effects that remain intriguing.
Tweedy’s lyrics skirt that same space. He’s written an ode to joy in difficult times, with more easily received lyrics, which is sometimes apparent and sometimes only true relative to something like the migraine-depicting “Less Than You Think”. Tweedy’s sharp phrases remain, and his snippets of stories stick. Not everything works. “White Wooden Cross” starts an emotional roil that it never investigates. “What would I do / If a white, wooden cross meant that I’d lost you?” Tweedy sings, without exploring those feelings. “Empty Corner” benefits from unexpected imagery, sparking power lines becoming angels or the thought that “my eyes need a shave”. The song comes from a cavity, but its world shines brightly, covering a spectrum of feelings and issues.
The album centers on the first single “Love Is Everywhere (Beware)”. The song has the catchiest melody and one of the brighter tones, both of which complicate the struggle in Tweedy’s lyrics. While “love is everywhere,” so are “the riots raining down”. “Right now / I’m frightened how / Love is here / Beware,” he sings near the end of the song, evens the lead guitar line encourages us upward. Love becomes more obvious in crisis, a troubling idea, but one that suggests the need to remember our big and little joys.
The album works with that sort of tension. The obvious – Wilco made another cool folk-rock record – isn’t so obvious on careful examination. While the sound remains mostly subdued, Wilco sound more invigorated than they did on their last album, with studio precision helping to make these songs into something more memorable. The record doesn’t entirely succeed, but these tracks are built on durable structures and sentiments that make them deserving of the focus they’ll likely receive.