For a band that's typically so meticulous and exacting in their sound and process, Wilco's 2016 album Schmilco seemed like a rushed and pieced-together work that followed its predecessor, Star Wars, a little more than a year later. The strain was evident.

The group went on a break, while leader Jeff Tweedy released three solo albums in succession, with the last, Warmer, arriving less than six months before Wilco return for their 11th LP, Ode to Joy.

A lot has happened in the relatively short three years between Wilco albums and, obviously, not all of them on the personal front. It's been a rough period for a lot of people; anger, disillusionment and hopelessness seem to be at the core of a lot of lives these days. So, it's no small thing that the record is called Ode to Joy. The somewhat winking title notwithstanding, there's light in the darkness of these songs. You just have to dig a little to find it.

That's a lot to ask, even from Wilco's most devoted fans. Especially when the opening "Bright Leaves" barely works up a melody to lift spirits. But then the next two songs – "Before Us" and "One and a Half Stars" – proceed at a similar pace, and Ode to Joy begins to find strange comfort in its melancholy. "Now, when something's dead, we try to kill it again," Tweedy sings on "Before Us," striking a sense of nostalgia for a lost past that eventually settles for resigned coziness.

The album is like that, creeping up on you with unexpected pokes you're not really expecting to find in the sad-sack nature of many of the songs. By the time "Love Is Everywhere (Beware)" rolls along during the last third of the LP, Ode to Joy sounds like the most organic Wilco album since 2004's A Ghost Is Born.

At times, the moody atmospherics underlining the songs amount to no more than mere hums; other times they become another instrument, pushing the tracks along. These sonic textures add haunting rumbles, fleeting noise bursts and the occasional melodic upswing.

But turmoil is always around the corner. The album's opening lines – "I don't like the way you're treating me" – signal a theme that shows up throughout the album, even at its most uplifting moments. But there's reserved hope, a tentative grasping for purpose in humanity, even when the chorus of a song called "Citizens" goes "White lies, white lies" and another one slyly titled "We Were Lucky" plays at a funeral-march pace.

Ode to Joy, like the best Wilco albums, can be oblique. That's always been a draw, and it's no less so here. The time away from each other has sharpened some of their ties. Tweedy is still in charge, but Nels Cline's guitar cuts through the occasional clutter to expose the soul that's not always surface evident. And the band's focused interplay on standouts like "Everyone Hides" takes on a life-force of its own, even if the overall result seems a little slight compared to past masterworks like Being There and Summerteeth.

As with the band's accidental post-9/11 meditation and career high-point Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – which was supposed to be released earlier in 2001 but didn't come out until 2002 – Ode to Joy sounds like a reflection of the times. Art can't help but to react, but maybe reading too much into the album shifts its intent and position.

Then again, maybe not. When Tweedy declares, "I'm freaking the fuck out / I'll try to do my best, I guess" on "Hold Me Anyway," it comes off like a summation of both the record and 2019. This isn't a record to change the world or even Wilco's place in it, like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot did. But in trying to make sense of it, Ode to Joy finds a sort of strength. And we'll take what we can get these days.

 

 

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