One of the most revered bands of the past 2+ decades, Wilco earned their lofty reputation particularly on Jeff Tweedy and Co.’s determination and ability to continually innovate; a sonic restlessness that led to band’s creative peak in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, including some of the best music of the era from anyone. Since 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, however, the latter half of Wilco’s catalogue has settled into a much more familiar groove. The dogged experimentation that was the band’s driving creative engine was replaced with a far more comfortable sense of songwriting acumen, as Jeff Tweedy pulled from bits and pieces of Wilco’s past to craft a series of solid, mature albums that served almost as tidy summaries of what could be defined as the onetime shapeshifting group’s “sound.”
On Ode To Joy, that pattern is broken. Not since A Ghost Is Born (or, some could argue, the aforementioned Sky) has a Wilco album so eschewed expectation, and that sense of unpredictability is more than welcome. The tidiness of the past few albums is gone, replaced with a minimal, stripped-down sound that tends to heavily emphasize acoustic instruments along with Glenn Koetche’s drums, rendering everything else a wispy breeze. Though it’s not exactly “Spiders Kidsmoke” part 2, on songs like “Everyone Hides,” the effect is quite hypnotic. With a name that belies the content, likely intentionally so, Joy is not a particularly happy album. Personal and political turmoil intertwine in many of these songs, yet the prominent backbeat and an inventive production prevent the record from ever sounding like a dirge. A meditation, perhaps. Purposeful, definitely. For the first time in a while, Wilco have put out an album that feels like it has something greater at stake: the comfortable, well-respected band behind Star Wars and Schmilco feel uncomfortable again, and Ode To Joy thrives because of it.