Wilco's first studio album after a short hiatus, "Ode to Joy" (dBpm Records) isn't so much a triumphal return as a small record about big moments. In keeping with the recent tradition of at least slightly tongue-in-cheek album titles ("Star Wars," "Schmilco"), "Ode to Joy" is not an homage to the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Instead, it's a low-key folk record tucked inside a bed of atmospheric, sometimes ominous arrangements.
As bands grow in popularity, the typical response is to make bigger records with songs that will ring out in theaters and arenas. But Wilco has never followed a traditional career path. Even as its following has exponentially expanded since the small-club days of 1994-95, the sextet has continued to make idiosyncratic, at times challenging albums that bridge rootsy Americana and garage-rock with experimental textures. Though it encompasses traditional elements, "Ode to Joy" falls on the quirkier side of the Wilco spectrum, an album that prizes subtlety and intimacy over immediacy and dynamics.
Jeff Tweedy's voice and guitar and Glenn Kotche's drums build a foundation on which the rest of the band adds subdued colors. At times, it resembles a Tweedy-and-friends solo album, because the contributions of bassist John Stirratt, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, guitarist Nels Cline and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen are relatively muted. Kotche's drumming also takes on a narrower focus than in past Wilco albums, largely confined to steady-as-she-goes marching beats, more of a determined trudge than the orchestral embellishments of the past. Tweedy's voice rarely rises above a conversational tone, as he delivers sparse lyrics in which personal wishes and insecurities merge with wary, if oblique, perspectives on the state of the planet.
Tweedy's narrators try to extract meaning from something that may not have any meaning at all. The lyrics leave plenty of room for interpretation, as well as application to the gray-area complexities of trying to be human in an inhumane environment: "Sometimes I'm just a hole for you to get in"; "In bed all day, I can't escape my domain"; "Are we all in love just because?"
The sound of a guitar string being tortured and distorted electronics over a plodding drum beat reflects the downcast mood of the opening "Bright Leaves," and sets the album's introspective tone. "Before Us" opens a window to the past, "alone with the people who have come before." The metronomic drums suit the narrator's guardedly hopeful perspective, as if urging him on _ we owe "the people who have come before" and we can't let them down.
The sense that love can, if not conquer all, at least provide a way to navigate the world, guides the relatively brisk "Everyone Hides," a single that came packaged with a video brimming with good-hearted mischief. That playfulness is largely missing from most of the music, and one yearns for a few more tear-it-up moments from Cline, or a more expansive playing field for Kotche, a world-class percussionist. Almost to a fault, the album sounds like a unified work, with little variety in the arrangements. Modest gestures distinguish the insular songs: the guitar figure in "Love is Everywhere (Beware)," the surge and crest of keyboards in "White Wooden Cross."
The album's themes and the band's broader potential finally converge on "We Were Lucky," its murky undertow hinting at greater turbulence. The singer's good fortune feels shaky at best. As Cline's agitated guitar solo jabs through the surface, it confirms the narrator's doubts. It's a thrilling reminder that expectations can be upended at any moment, even on a quietly uneasy folk album.