Wilco—Joy Worth Fighting For

No one would blame Wilco fans if they were to greet the title of the band’s new album, Ode to Joy, with a smirk—least of all the members of Wilco, themselves. After all, they are the band that titled their last two LPs Schmilco and Star Wars, respectively, and it’s honestly no snub to say that Wilco have spent the last decade reveling in a sassy irreverent streak, one which would seem maddeningly pithy if it weren’t for Wilco’s inarguable cache of heralded artistry. You see, it’s not that Wilco have all along beeninsincere with us. It’s just that avoiding rock ‘n’ roll tropisms is a tightrope walk these days, and Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy knows all about walking that line. He’s taken enough punches throughout his career to know there is a way to avoid looking like a clown in this business without having to blatantly look like you’re banging out ham-fisted missives on your guitar. So, if that requires calling your album Ode to Joy—or Star Wars, for that matter—then so be it.

“Nobody needs more Wilco music,” Tweedy says. “But at the same time, if you use that as motivation, that’s a lot of energy to push forward and try to make something that is worth sharing, to challenge yourself to make something that has meaning to you. As an artist, I think that’s your fucking job.” 

And that’s where Ode to Joy comes in—an album that encourages the finding of joy within a dark political climate, as well as a mainstream rock scene that’s suffering from an ambiguous personality crisis. It’s a sonic gut check that comes in the form of a naked, giant steel structure, standing quiet and still, until its walled in by a sometimes audacious, oftentimes sincere, siding of heavy emotion. “Quiet Amplifier” has an early Velvet Underground vibe, with a dissonant sonic underbelly that churns along with drummer Glenn Kotche’s plodding rhythms. It’s a rendering that struts delicately between other-worldly ambiance and the deliberate drums of war. “The record is, in a weird way, an ode,” says Tweedy. “This terrible stuff is happening, this deepening sense of creeping authoritarianism that weighs on everybody’s psyche on a daily basis, and you’re allowed to feel a lot of things at once. And one thing that is worth feeling, that is worth fighting for, is your freedom to still have joy even though things are going to shit.” Make no mistake, at each crossroad of Ode to Joy, there is a juxtaposition: darkness and light, hope and despair, sadness and delight.

Tweedy spent most of the last year touring in support of his two recent solo efforts—WARM and WARMER—as well as his very candid, heartwarming memoir Hurry Up (So We Can Get Back). But never being one to sit idle, Tweedy got together with Kotche soon after and began sketching the ideas that would become the songs for Ode to Joy. Together, they honed in on unique rhythm tracks with minimalist accompaniment—often just an acoustic guitar—and married them together with lyrics that strike a balance between the abstract and concrete. Much of the album was then demoed and tracked by Tweedy and Kotche at the band’s studio—The Loft—in Chicago, before gathering all six members of Wilco together. Even though each member plays on the album, there is an acknowledged minimalism throughout the album’s eleven tracks.

“Jeff and Glenn’s sense of it was there was definitely a sparseness that needed to happen,” says Wilco bassist John Stirratt. “Sometimes it was hard to play very sparsely and apply a light touch that was allusive. The tone wasn’t always easy to follow in terms of the accompaniment. So, I think that was a big challenge: to find what worked with these tracks, and less was definitely the answer versus more. Certainly there’s a vibe there, and with Wilco, the process is always different every time. So, the more records we make, it’s something I’ve appreciated. Ode to Joy seems a little more literal to me, and less couched in any sort of playfulness or irony. I think the subject matter and the continuity of the record definitely feels a long way away from Schmilco and Star Wars. I would put it in the company of The Whole Love, and even A Ghost Is Born in a way.”

Stirratt has the distinguished honor of being the only original member of Wilco other than Tweedy. In fact, his tenure with the songwriter dates back to the last days of Tweedy’s previous band, the seminal Uncle Tupelo. Stirratt has been witness to both the highs and lows of Tweedy’s career, so if anyone has had the rare opportunity to observe him up close and understand his methods, it’s Stirratt. Asked what impresses him most about his band leader after all this time, Stirratt says, “Resilience, more than anything. There is this idea that Jeff’s is a really fragile person, when it’s very far from the truth, I would say. He’s very sensitive, but he’s as resilient as anyone—especially in the arts—as I’ve ever known.” 

It’s that resilience that has paved the way for a certain self-awareness that Stirratt suggests was present from the very beginning of the writing and recording of Ode to Joy. “I think at the beginning of the record, Jeff was afraid of any rockisms or rock clichés landing on the record,” he says. “But I think rock is such a niche thing these days. I’m not really even sure where the rock is. I think it’s mainly about trying to create something unfamiliar, and I think that’s a challenge for almost any artist, especially right now in this multi-genre, crossover genre world that we live in, where kids put as much emphasis on the Beatles as they do Cardi B.”

Or, as Tweedy puts it, “I am at a moment in my life where I feel the canon of Baby Boomer rockism tropes—rockist music—is complicit. All of the music I hear that draws upon those tropes feels like it’s based in fear: I’m afraid that we are not going to have any audience anymore if we don’t keep perpetuating this. That notion is completely divorced from the most important aspect of what rock and roll is to me: self-liberation, self-actualization, self-invention. I can probably intuit that because I know that I’ve felt it. Rockism is not intellectually an honest place to be, so this is more just a personal observation of what I don’t want to do.”

Like an elevator built out of bones, Ode to Joy dances beyond the peripheral and asks the ethereal question: “What makes you happy?” 

A boxful of old letters?

A string of pearls?

Profile visits and celebrity follows?

Whatever shields you from that which is beyond the pale, it’s yours. Ode to Joy simply reaffirms your freedom to keep it, revere its beauty, fight for its virtue, and never let it go.