By Tommy Housworth, contributor
When Wilco visits Atlanta’s Cadence Bank Amphitheater on October 18th, they’ll be bringing 25 years of alt-rock history with them. While ticket holders can expect to hear a generous helping of the songs that earned Jeff Tweedy and company consistent critical praise and a faithful fan base, they’ll also be sharing songs from their just released 11th studio album, Ode to Joy.
Upon first listen, the album, their first since 2016’s folksy Wilco Schmilco, might seem like anything but a musical celebration. The arrangements are deceptively understated, with only strategic hints of the ramshackle experimentation that brought them acclaim in the early 2000’s. Tweedy’s lyrics feel personal and muted, an introvert trying his best to extend a bouquet with one hand while the other guards his heart. Could it be that the band unfairly saddled as the purveyor of “dad rock” has matured into a more sonically shamanistic role?
In The New Yorker , novelist George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo) said that Tweedy once told him that he wants his audiences to know, “You’re O.K. You’re not alone. I’m singing to you, but I also hear you.” In 2019, that may be Wilco’s greatest gift: their collective ability to reassure us in the midst of personal and universal shakiness. On Ode, they do so in true Wilco fashion, digging around in the darkness to offer sparks of light and hints of warmth.
“Bright Leaves” opens Ode to Joy with what may be the slowest steady drum beat Glenn Kotche has ever pounded out, a cadence that portends a hint of dread. Not Thom Yorke/Radiohead angst, certainly, but a sense that something once stable is now askew, especially as Nels Cline adds in a static-laden guitar riff and the vocal mix drops into a reverberating echo. The lyrics feed this narrative, with lines like “I don’t like the way you’re treating me” and “Sometimes I’m just a hole for you to get in”, and yet by the song’s bridge, Tweedy proposes a hint of redemption: “Somehow we’re bright leaves, you and I beneath the old snow, being set free by the winter rain…”
The album tends to work this way, establishing a base level of melancholy or – at best – wistful wishfulness, then each song manages to offer the gentlest of respites, choosing – if not joy – at least the reassuring blanket of contentment. Given this is a band that was made unwitting spokesmen for post-9/11 America with the timing and lyricism of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it’s hard not to view Ode to Joy as a social statement about how disconnected and damaged our citizenry feels, and how finding one another again might be the balm that would begin to make us feel more whole again.
Certainly, songs like “Everyone Hides”, the album’s most radio-friendly tune (if that’s even an aspiration for Wilco), speaks to this, with its nod to our tendency to trade humble authenticity for the grand charades that social media and materialism promote. Meanwhile, “Love is Everywhere (Beware)” reminds us that “beneath the sleeping town, with the riots raining down”, love is still a quiet, driving force in our lives.
Lyrically, though still delivered in an abstract, minimalist pastiche of lines, Tweedy is more direct than he has been in some time. Coming off his confessional solo albums Warm and Warmer, both released in the past year, the shrouded songwriter who claimed to be an “American aquarium drinker” who “assassins down the avenue” is now vulnerable enough to confess on the shuffling singalong “Hold Me Anyway” that ‘I think it’s poetry and magic, something too big to have a name.’ Turns out the iconoclast has a streak of idealist in him.
Fans who rightly loved the Americana bombast of 1995’s Being There and the dissonant explorations of 2004’s Grammy winning A Ghost Is Born might wonder where the band’s bite is, but it’s minor moments of wonder that Wilco currently majors in.
With each listen to their new album, a more of those moments reveal themselves. As we careen toward our uncertain futures – both personal and collective – having a musical friend who can say “You’re O.K. You’re not alone. I’m singing to you, but I also hear you,” can be a reassuring hand on a shaky shoulder. It might even be called an Ode to Joy.
WILCO will perform at Cadence Bank Amphitheatre at Chastain Park on Friday, October 18th. Soccer Mommy opens.