By Andy Marquardt
21 Oct, 2019
In Mark Everett’s memoir Things the Grandchildren Should Know, the Eels frontman recalls running around his house as a kid, singing along passionately to John Lennon’s “My Mummy’s Dead,” much to the dismay of his onlooking mother, who was very much alive.
When I was nine, one of my best friends felt similarly when I mindlessly repeated the opening lines of Wilco’s “Via Chicago” in the midst of an otherwise innocent game of stickball in my backyard: “I dreamed about killing you again last night / And it felt alright to me…”
Not unlike Everett and Lennon, I grew up with Wilco, and at the time I was too young to understand the gravity of the words so effortlessly rolling off my tongue. But it also didn’t matter — Wilco’s music was something that I was surrounded by from the start, and it was a part of me. I was six or seven the first time my dad took me to see them play live and definitely far younger the first time I was exposed to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s “Radio Cure” or Summerteeth’s “A Shot in the Arm.”
As I got older though, I drifted from the music I loved as a kid. My older brother went to college and left behind a stack of CDs on my bed, including A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory and Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. From there, Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came out, and I took a break from a lot of what raised me musically. Through high school, Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap and Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside pretty much cemented that hiatus.
This past year though, Jeff Tweedy (Wilco’s lead singer and songwriter) published a memoir of his own: 2018’s Lets Go (So We Get Back). My dad (similar in age, background and natural affinity for knowing what’s cool) bought and shipped copies of the book for me and my two siblings, and I sat and read it front to back in what felt like an hour. With the release of his beautifully introspective and similarly autobiographical solo album Warm shortly thereafter, I was back.
Then, when earlier this year Tweedy and Wilco announced the release of their newest album Ode to Joy, along with the lead single “Love is Everywhere (Beware),” I was really back. Written in a similar vein as Tweedy’s recent solo work, Ode to Joy is Wilco’s best album in years.
As the great American novelist George Saunders commented in the liner notes of Tweedy’s Warm, “A poet is someone who lets language respond to language, trusting that meaning and sound are good friends who, given a little room, will work things out.”
On Ode to Joy, Wilco’s six-man group of sonic and lyrical poets come together to produce 42 minutes of hope and light at the end of the tunnel. As Tweedy asks and answers on the album’s penultimate track “Hold Me Anyway,” “Are we all in love just because?/No, I think it’s poetry and magic/Something too big to have a name.”
Here, language responds to language, and sound and meaning are like good friends that don’t need to talk every day to know they have each other’s back. They are in conversation, in understanding, and (with space) they’re magic.
While these songs may not bring the live promise of in-concert Wilco staples like “Impossible Germany” or “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” Ode to Joy is right for this moment. It is concise. It is beautiful. And its message is clear. Even in the deepest times of despair, Wilco is here to remind you that in this world, “You’ve got family out there.”