In a sentence:
Although masterful in places, Wilco’s 11th album ‘Ode To Joy’ is hamstrung by flat, damp production and some uninspired writing.
Ever since their formation out of the early ‘90s alt-country
outfit Uncle Tupelo, Wilco have always been darlings with the critics.
It’s not surprising why, given the pop flair that the band have developed over
time, intertwined with their ever-present fearlessness to try their hand at
more experimental material. However, their 2011 release The Whole Love was the
final time we got to hear this pop prowess in its truest form, as what followed
was a brief hiatus, before two albums, Star Wars,
and the lazily titled Schmilco,
were released within 14 months of each other. Those records saw a shift towards
a far more minimalistic style of rock, with less emphasis on diverse textures
and instrumentation, in favour of what has become, for better or for worse, a
trademark, claustrophobic production style. This continues to be the order of
the day on Ode To Joy.
The album instantly stumbles out of the gate with the
lifeless dirge that is ‘Bright
Leaves’, with its slow, plodding drum beat and Jeff Tweedy’s vocals that
sound as if they’re being performed whilst lying down at 4am during a severe
episode of insomnia. It’s hard to envisage who such an unremarkable and
lethargic piece of music could possibly appeal to, but it certainly isn’t us.
A slight improvement occurs with the second track ‘Before Us’, with its familiar
acoustic guitar strums, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place as one of the
more solemn moments on 1996’s Being
There, and the refrain of “Alone with the people who have come
before” at least offers the listener something to remember the track by.
Nevertheless, Tweedy is still in insomniac mode, and the claustrophobic
production genuinely gives the impression that he is breathing down my neck at
‘One And A Half
Stars’ gives us our first clear glimpse of enjoyable music, in the form of
a nylon acoustic guitar-led ballad. A solid chord progression and a very sweet
and undoubtedly heartfelt chorus are what elevate this track over its two
predecessors. However, the band’s performance is so hushed, as if recorded
during a sleepover in a friend’s bedroom, desperately avoiding waking up the
parents in the next room, that I can’t help feeling that the song’s emotional
effect is prevented from achieving its true potential.
We promptly slide back into dirge territory with the
six-minute long ‘Quiet
Amplifier’, which begins with an interesting vocal melody from Tweedy,
until you realise that that is the whole song! Granted, there are some nice
instrumental touches in the background, and the track overall constitutes a
gradual crescendo as the dynamics are augmented bit by bit, a trick that Wilco
have pulled frequently throughout their 20+ year career. However, such dynamics
are rendered futile by the sheer linearity of the song from a song-writing
A similar crescendo takes place on ‘Everyone Hides’. Easily one of the stronger tracks here, it’s understandable within the context of Ode To Joy why this was chosen to be a single. Despite this, the chorus does fall flat after some solid verses, and although the pretty guitar arpeggios and a rather intriguing, albeit brief guitar solo do throw an undeniable level of colour into the mix, the omnipresent claustrophobic production does once again smother everything in an indelible sense of dullness. Check out the music video though, it’s rather amusing.
We get our most notable taste of Americana on the
country-tinged ditty ‘White
Wooden Cross’, which harkens back to the early days of Wilco and their
ex-Uncle Tupelo counterparts Son Volt. With its twangy slide guitar leading
into the chorus, as well as those piano flourishes during the second half of
the track, it’s a simple, understated yet rather beautiful little tune. This is
followed by ‘Citizens’,
which doesn’t contribute anything of any note, and had it been written ten or
twenty years earlier, it would most likely have ended up as a B-side.
Thankfully, Ode To Joy undergoes an improvement from
here on out, beginning with ‘We
Were Lucky’. Whilst this song’s structure is comparable to the
aforementioned ‘Quiet Amplifier’, the rather unconventional chord progression
of the verses renders it a far more interesting listen. These verses are tied
together by several drawn out, disjointed, almost “strangled” lead guitar
passages that are likely to whet the appetite of any Velvet Underground fan, and
although they do begin to dominate the track overall, they provide a suitable
contrast to the low-key verses.
The lead single, ‘Love Is Everywhere (Beware)’,
is next up, and predictably this is another one of the album’s strongest points,
almost exclusively due to Nels Cline’s gorgeous, chiming guitar melodies,
around which the track revolves, and which offer an indisputable sonic depth to
proceedings that everything that came before was sorely lacking. Arguably an
even better track is ‘Hold Me
Anyway’, which suddenly, and perhaps belatedly, injects just a dash of
sprightliness and catchiness into this otherwise wearisome affair. Tweedy has
finally been administered a caffeine shot, as for the first time he explores
the upper bounds of his vocal range within the chorus, and combined with
Cline’s melodious guitar instrumentals, it simply begs the question: Why
couldn’t the rest of the album be like this?
Corner’ brings the record to a close, and it’s a classic, Americana-infused,
Wilco slow number. Similar to ‘White Wooden Cross’, it succeeds in delivering a
stripped down, acoustic ballad that yields more beauty than boredom, simply
reinforcing that this album ends on a significantly more positive note than it
The trouble with reserving almost all of your strongest
tracks for the final portion of the album is that the listener is unlikely to
bring themselves to appreciate their genuine quality, due to having such a sour
taste in their mouth from the sheer disappointment of the opening half.
Nevertheless, with the possible exception of ‘Hold Me Anyway’, this is not the standard
that many long-terms fans would expect from the band that once brought us the
masterpiece that is Yankee
Hotel Foxtrot. Even when the song-writing itself is on point, the
lingering claustrophobic production (which, quite frankly, I’m sick of going on
about) is a real dampener, sucking all of the energy out of the music, leaving
behind what comes across as merely a bunch of demo takes. The band’s hushed
performance, in particular Tweedy’s, only exacerbates this issue.
As for the future, on the evidence of Ode To Joy it looks as if Wilco are committing themselves to this style of music for the long run, which may prove beneficial in establishing a new, younger crop of indie fans. However, they ought not to be surprised if the older fans begin to clock out sooner or later. (5/10) (George McKenna)
Listen to Ode To Joy by Wilco here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: album, George McKenna, Glenn Kotche, Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, Mikael Jorgensen, Nels Cline, Ode To Joy, Pat Sansone, review, Wilco
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