The Lowdown: “I won’t escape my domain,” Jeff Tweedy quietly muses on “One and a Half Stars”. The Wilco chief has been tossing off introspective pearls like these for years, but this one feels particularly applicable to his band’s latest release. Ode to Joy is Wilco’s 11th record, and it raises a question that listeners never thought they’d have to ask: Is Wilco finally settling?
Ode to Joy fits perfectly within the music styles and quirks that have long made the band standard-bearers of post-millennium American indie rock. After more than two decades of pushing the creative envelope, Tweedy and company have reverted to their well-developed strengths rather than venturing out into new territory. And yet, the record might be one of the band’s best releases in years. So are Wilco settling? The answer is maybe, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The Good: Ode to Joy will sound familiar to anyone who’s closely followed the band’s catalog over the years, taking the best elements from past Wilco records and stringing them together into something fresh. You can hear the fragile beauty of A Ghost Is Born (“Bright Leaves”) and feel that record’s hair-raising guitar turns (“We Were Lucky”). Other tracks recall the warmth of Sky Blue Sky (“Love Is Everywhere”), the pop-rock ease of Wilco (The Album) (“Everyone Hides”), and the moody dream state of earlier records like Summerteeth (“Hold Me Anyway”, “An Empty Corner”).
But while so much sounds familiar on Ode to Joy, the record also has its share of new wrinkles. Drummer Glenn Kotche’s influence is more pronounced here than on any of the band’s previous albums. His minimalist drumming drives some of the record’s strongest moments, from “Bright Leaves” to the Velvet Underground-inspired stomp on “Before Us”. Rather than large, sonic shifts, it’s the small, nuanced touches that give Wilco’s latest its unique color.
The Bad: Yes, Ode to Joy rests a little too firmly in the band’s comfort zone, but it’s at least a zone that touches on everything from atmospheric folk to pop, psychedelia, art-rock, and even Latin music (“White Wooden Cross”) … and pretty expertly at that.
The Verdict: It’s been a little more than three years since Wilco’s last studio record, and the time away has evidently served the band well. If Star Wars and Schmilco came off a little too lighthearted, Ode to Joy reminds us of how good the band can be with the benefit of time and deliberation. Now 25 years into a career that has covered a relatively wide sonic palette, Wilco sound as engaged as ever, and the band’s latest is a tuneful reminder of its almost unrivaled musical range.
Essential Tracks: “Bright Leaves”, “Love Is Everywhere (Beware)”, and “An Empty Corner”