Man, Jeff Tweedy has really let himself go. Let himself go back to making important music, that is. I can’t say that I’ve given more than a couple spins, a shoulder shrug and a “meh” for a Wilco record since A Ghost is Born. But their latest, Ode to Joy, has changed that. And it’s reinvigorated their live show too. I’ll call it a comeback even though they’ve been here for years.
Wilco are an important band. They spent the second half of the 90s and the first five years of the new century creating modern classic records like Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. In the process, they established a blueprint for indie success: don’t rely on your label, stay true to your art and build a fiercely loyal fan base.
Post-Ghost however, starting with Sky Blue Sky in 2007, they seemed to go on creative autopilot. Their records were good, but they didn’t seem to matter the same as the early stuff. Indeed, I don’t want to live in a world in which any one of the tunes on the first five records doesn’t exist. Conversely, I’m not even sure I could name five songs off their last five records combined. Their live shows have remained excellent throughout their career, but in recent years the “classics” have been the highlights.
So I regarded the release of Ode to Joy and the band’s tour appearance at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor last fall with a touch of ennui. Seemed like an opportunity to chow a great sandwich at Zingerman’s Deli and discover some obscure, fair trade, dark-as-hell chocolate. But then I gave Ode a spin and suddenly the show in Ann Arbor began to feel important.
Ode to Joy is a mindful record. It’s the sound of an artist making room for his demon familiars and finding liberation in the knowledge that they might never be completely exorcised. Tweedy gives himself “One and a Half Stars” but still experiences rebirth through the pain of inhabiting reality. “Before Us,” with its heartbeat kick drum, vocal mantra and repeating guitar figure, explores the camaraderie of loneliness. Change of perspective, as opposed to personal growth, is a theme. “I’m left with only my desire to change.” It feels seasonal. This, a winter song cycle. Satisfying, like finding your lost keys in the snow. Midwestern.
Ode for me evokes a John Lennon solo record: raw, honest and inventive. Subdued, but always a threat to rock. Musically, the album is poly rhythmic and percussion-centric. Each tune has a distinctive groove and much of the record has a meditative vibe. It’s as if Tweedy invited drummer Glenn Kotche into the early stages of creating the structure of these songs.
By the time Tweedy & Co rolled into Ann Arbor I was ready. University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium played host to an almost Deadhead-esque gathering of the faithful. Old Wilco friends greeted each other and mingled in the lobby. The first time my crew saw Wilco it was at Hill, so this was a kind of self-deprecating, indie class reunion. The band arrived fully engaged and ready to unpack a trunkful of their glorious baggage.
They opened the set with “Bright Leaves” and “Before Us,” the first two songs on Ode, just like I was spinning the record yet again. The new material was riveting, as the band explored the deep, swinging waltz of “Citizens” and “Love is Everywhere (Beware).” Nels Cline, as always, was a highlight, twisting “We Were Lucky” beyond its rigid, mechanistic groove. The distinguished guitarist was also a human highlight reel on “Impossible Germany.” Other than that track (off Sky Blue Sky) they performed very little post-Ghost material.
The new material from Ode to Joy was the highlight of this show. It seems as if Tweedy has allowed himself to be challenged in his writing and creative process. Artists like Jay Farrar and Jay Bennett challenged and motivated him early in his career. Rivalry and competition often provide the sparks to the best art. Wherever that spark is coming from now, Jeff Tweedy and Wilco are leading us in a compelling new direction.
Check out these pre-Ghost classics I grabbed at the Hill show: