Friday, December 13, 2019

Albums of the Year # 13 Wilco - Ode To Joy

From October:

In a fascinating and revealing interview in the latest copy of Uncut Magazine, Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy makes a remarkable point. 'Nobody needs more Wilco music'. Interesting, given that the interview is designed for nothing at all except to promote and discuss just that, Ode To Joy, the band's eleventh in all since their first in 1995.

It's a frank and dignified admission. Nevertheless, Wilco are something of an institution among American Rock groups. Possibly not many people's favourite band, they still occupy a special place in the scheme of things. Offering an ongoing model lesson about how to age with grace and intelligence. Ode To Joy puts forward further testimony to that fact if it's necessary. I've been living with it over the last few days since its release. Its a beautiful and nuanced record. Though given that this is Wilco why would anybody expect anything else?

They're master craftsmen. With a back catalogue that's  a rich and textured narrative of nothing less than the journey through life. Compiling a best of would be an almost impossible task, (it has actually been done of course), as their best known songs are by no means necessarily their best. Each album they've released is studded with jewels. The copy of Uncut that houses the interview also offers a giveaway CD compilation of their songs, covered by an extraordinary range of artists from Handsome Family to Cate Le Bon, Parquet Courts, Courtney Barnett, Low, Kurt Vile and Twin Peaks and many more. It's almost as if they're all queuing up just to pay their respects.

Ode To Joy is a quiet record, except for its drums which take centre stage along with Tweedy's voice and clearly iterated lyrics throughout. It was almost the first thing I noticed about it when I started listening to opening track Bright Leaves. 'These drums are a bit obtrusive' I thought to myself, 'Thudding. Not sure that I like this.'

The interview goes some way to explaining why this might be the case. The record was recorded in Chicago, where the band are originally from but where only Tweedy and percussionist Glenn Kotche still live. Subsequently, the album was initially pieced together by the two of them before the other four core band members became involved and so the drums, martial and thudding, like a heartbeat, (or else a funereal one), are at the core of proceedings throughout.

If this marginalises other players to some degree, most notably lead guitarist Nels Cline, one of the world's finest this is quite understandable. Wilco are at a point of their career where there is a pressing need for them to make things interesting for themselves first and foremost. It seems they must have done so, because the record is a rich and many splendored thing. It may well rank with their very finest although the band are probably past the stage where it is likely to be recognised as such.

Ode To Joy wrestles and itches with the contradictions of being middle aged. In the here and now in this difficult point of human history, watching the madness ebb and flow on the daily news, all the while given over to your own private fears and woes, anxieties for your nearest and dearest, guilt about enjoying and revelling in those tiny moments of levity and beauty that life throws at you on a daily basis. Constant wondering about life.

I love this record. It's content to be small and subsequently makes a big statement. There are eleven songs here and they're all worth getting to know, making your own. Each and every one of them concerned with life and the thought of death. It offers consolation and hope, yes and joy though the latter it has to be said is joy of a tired and fragile middle aged kind. I'm rather a tired and fragile middle aged bloke so in many ways it feels as if it were made for me. When it comes to a close with An Empty Corner you might feel like shedding a tear at its quiet, certain, hard-won profundity. I can only thank Wilco for making it.

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