After three Jeff Tweedy solo records and a memoir, Wilco’s first album since 2016 arrives like a reunion. It sounds like one too: simple, straightforward songs, most with acoustic guitar at the core, other melodic tendrils and rhythms and harmonic drones curling up like ivy, a long-running conversation being picked up, slow but sure. The sound recalls Sky Blue Sky, the very first album by the band’s current lineup, and the spirit definitely feels informed by its bandleader’s recent path: Tweedy’s deep dive into Tweedy. These are all positives. Ode To Joy shows off some of Wilco’s prettiest and most comforting songs, Tweedy’s enlarged heart transplanted back into a band — its lineup now unchanged for roughly half of its 25-year history — that’s never sounded more empathic.
And empathy’s surely on the table here, not that it hasn’t always been a defining attribute of band led by “our great, wry, American consolation-poet,” as novelist George Saunders put it. But the present moment seems to call for a doubling-down on whatever you’ve got, and the fittingly-named Ode To Joy opens, fittingly, with what sounds a lot like sadness: a woozy, noise-scarred lament about stasis and stuff buried in the snow, sung in a wheezy voice over a death-march beat pounded out with what might be boxes of Kraft macaroni and cheese. But the energy picks up, the melody brightens, rain melts the snow, guitar notes sparkle, something like love shines through, and it winds up sounding joyful indeed, in a hard-won way.
That’s pretty much the strategy of Ode To Joy, and it unspools accordingly. “I remember when wars would end,” Tweedy sings on “Before Us,” meditating on his forebears, maybe departed, joined by a gang who deliver the chorus like a Christmas carol. Themes from his memoir flicker through the set — here, the loss of his parents; on the somberly strummy “One And A Half Stars,” anxiety, recovery from an addiction to painkillers, and a tendency towards excessive napping.
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Touchstones of comfort are well-deployed. The chipper “White Wooden Cross,” which suggests a makeshift roadside memorial, ponders death with slide-guitar punctuation echoing George Harrison’s “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth).” It’s not the only Beatles reference here — and what’s more comforting to a certain demographic of rock fan, after all? “We Were Lucky” is latter-day Lennon-flavored balladry featuring the album’s main Nels Cline showcase, two fireworks-bursts of agitated electric guitar discourse that each flame out in magnesium-flare noise. And the band gets downright upbeat on “Everyone Hides,” a hooky song about masks and self-deception with hand claps, more Cline guitar fire, and lines that might be psychotherapeutic t-shirt prompts (“you know where the bodies are buried/But you can’t remember where you buried the mines”).
But the most shamelessly uplifting song is the single “Love Is Everywhere,” a fragrant folk-rock bouquet infused with finger-picking, buoyed on bells and a waltz pulse that doesn’t suggest dancing as much as a campfire singalong, where you tipsily throw your arms over the shoulders of your neighbors and put your heart into it. With Tweedy singing about sadness stalking, “riots raining down,” and fear lurking right behind the glory of love, it’s a perfectly Wilco moment.