Wilco practices vulnerability, empathy on ‘Ode to Joy’

Matt Campbell

On their 11th studio album, Wilco returns from their hiatus more mature, refined and prudent than ever.

With fall comes a quiet feeling, as leaves fall to the ground and the earth becomes more vulnerable and, for the most part, dead. Mostly, it brings gray skies and a cold that stings in a different way than winter. Wilco’s release of their newest album “Ode to Joy” makes this feeling welcome as the seasons turn.


As one of the most prolific bands of the past 25 years, Wilco, for better or for worse, will always live in the shadow of their previous works. 1999’s “Summerteeth,” 2002’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and 2004’s “A Ghost is Born” cemented the band as indie rock stars.

Over the past decade, the band has demonstrated that they have nothing left to prove, and they live in the comfort of only exceeding their own expectations. The albums released in this period, however, have left little for fans to be excited about and pale in comparison to their early works. What is more, the band seems fine with that. On “Ode to Joy,” Wilco presents a record that feels authentic. It’s indicative of the personal journey of front man Jeff Tweedy and the sonic arrival of the band itself.

As the primary singer and songwriter, Tweedy’s lyrics have always been cryptic and world-weary, and that does not change on “Ode to Joy.” Still, the album feels direct, mature and intentional. “Ode to Joy” opens with the steady and thunderous sound of drummer Glenn Kotche’s drums before falling into Tweedy’s signature shaky and self-conscious vocals that talk of losing keys in the snow and arguments in the car. The song is reflective and modest, with an air that feels uncomfortable, mysterious and steady.

“Before Us” is another example of Tweedy’s world-weary lyrics, invoking the feelings of “Ashes of American Flags,” a song off of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” Tweedy delivers a message that is overtly political and urges consideration of self and other.

“Quiet Amplifier” is a spacious and steady song that slowly builds off of an ambient pad before cresting into noisy and controlled chaos with Tweedy’s frantic acoustic guitar strumming. The song eventually fades out into the oblivion from which it came and into the second single off of the album, “Everyone Hides.”

“Everyone Hides,” coupled with its hilarious music video where the band uses their home city of Chicago for a game of hide and seek, is an energetic highlight of the record. The song pulsates over a steady groove with lyrics that are confessional and straightforward. “Everyone Hides” also includes one of the only big guitar moments of the record, with an energetic and simple solo by lead guitarist Nels Cline.

The first single off the album, “Love is Everywhere (Beware),” is the emotional highlight of the album, with deeply introspective lyrics and a steady rhythm. Over complex guitar trills and chordal execution similar to those of Elliott Smith or Nick Drake, Tweedy exercises divulgence and vulnerability. “Love is Everywhere (Beware)” feels closest to Tweedy’s two solo albums, 2018’s “WARM” and 2019’s “WARMER,” in both scope and sound.

The lyrics of “Hold Me Anyway,” “I’m freaking the f*ck out. I’ll do my best I guess,” display Tweedy’s interiority. It’s barely a love song, questioning the acceptance of love and personifying the personal anxieties of a relationship.

“Ode to Joy” closes with “An Empty Corner,” a song that bookends the album in a similar fashion as it started, with steady, slow drums, Tweedy’s self-conscious vocal delivery and an atmosphere that is quiet and ambient.

While it may not have the sonic enthusiasm of “Summerteeth” or the emotional intensity of “A Ghost is Born,” “Ode to Joy” is a product of the band’s growth and maturity. “Ode to Joy” is Wilco at their best and most authentic. It is a perfect album that displays empathy and purpose and marks the triumphant and poised, albeit reserved, return of one of America’s greatest rock bands of the 21st century.


Rating: 8/10

Matt Campbell can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @mcampnh