The downbeat: Wilco released ‘Ode to Joy,’ so here’s an ode to Wilco

A drawing of the members of the indie band "Wilco" with a yellow background.
Graphic by Yasmin Elqutami

On Oct. 4, Wilco released yet another beautifully composed album, titled “Ode to Joy.” Filled with their signature stripped down songs, soft vocals and haunting lyrics, Wilco continues to create meaningful music that’s sure to stand the test of time. 

I first heard Wilco riding in the car with my dad. I was probably 13 at the time, so I listened to (and, unfortunately, related to) the music of Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and One Direction — songs about school dances, football games and first kisses. 

But when Wilco sang about “Alcohol and cotton balls / And some drugs / We can’t afford on the way,” feeling “something true / Now I’m red-eyed and blue,” I knew there was something about them I connected with. 

I had never drank. I had probably never been really sad before. But the band sounded like they might have been through some pretty serious things in life, and their writing clued me into the idea that there might be some things more important than, say, getting a call from your crush. 

Wilco sounded beaten down by life, like they were tired of fighting an uphill battle. Their music sounded like the inner debate, and ultimately, the decision to continue the fight at all. Most of all, their sound had a certain force, filled with honesty and conviction. Without a personal connection to the lyrics, I connected to the music. 

Six years later, I’ve listened to a lot of different music. But something about Wilco has lived with me through all my musical explorations. I’ve come to realize what struck me so vividly as a 13-year-old. Wilco’s music is meaningful. While many musicians act as advertisements for the lifestyle they live, Wilco acts as a mirror, urging listeners to look into themselves and reflect on their own lives. 

The vast majority of music fails to remain relevant for more than a decade after its release, but Wilco’s work continues to write musical history. 

Wilco is an anomaly of a band. As of this year, Wilco has been actively together for 25 years, an accomplishment on its own considering that Wilco has stayed in the public eye for most of that time. Furthermore, Wilco doesn’t demand attention. They let their music stand as their public image. 

The band’s sound is seemingly easy to categorize — technically, Wilco is an American alternative rock band. Yet, the more you listen to their music, it becomes almost impossible to see them fitting into this genre. Grouping them with “similar” bands, like The All-American Rejects or even Cage the Elephant, just doesn’t feel right. 

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This might be due to Wilco’s signature artistic style, described as “direct” by Pitchfork’s “Ode to Joy” album review. While many musicians spend time constructing intricate rhythms and complicated metaphors to convey their message, Wilco just … conveys it. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of overthinking involved. 

For such a simple sound, it’s surprisingly and satisfyingly complex. Often music is initially difficult to interpret, but becomes shallow upon interpreting the lyrics. Songs masquerade themselves behind complex lyrics, only to be about money or sex. Often they lack a clear meaning at all. 

Wilco’s poetic lyrics unfurl themselves more with each listen, like the quiet student in the back of the class who slowly reveals themself once you earn their trust. The more you listen, the more you understand, and the more you understand, the more you want to know. With Wilco’s music, the reward is in the work. 

For example, in “Quiet Amplifier” off “Ode to Joy,” Jeff Tweedy sings “I wish your world was mine / I have a quiet amplifier / Silence seems more true,” and later on confesses “I’ve tried, in my way, to love you.”

These words pack so much potential for interpretation into just a few bars of music. Is Tweedy referring to his desire to be with someone, to combine their worlds? Or does he simply regret not doing more to maintain a connection with someone? Is he ruminating on how his way of loving wasn’t enough? Or is he just giving up, resigning himself to the possibility that everyone loves differently and he just isn’t meant to be with someone he loved?

This concise pairing of intensity and vagueness grants Wilco the ability to portray raw emotion on each track without the pretentious feeling usually associated with “emotional music.” Each song provokes simultaneous feelings of uncontained sadness, yet also intense hopefulness, without relying too heavily on over-emotional lyrics or extreme vocal inflections. 

Everything about Wilco screams real. Their music videos go light on the special effects and excessive editing. Their album covers are often monochromatic, if they have colors at all. Even their website is sparse. They’re all about the music, and without the distractions of excessive media tricks, their music shines through. 

Wilco is the rock band that doesn’t need to use sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll to captivate an audience. They’ve done it for 25 years, and hopefully they’ll continue to do it for a long time. We’ll be right here, listening to Tweedy sing his eerie melodies, peering closer into ourselves.

Ella Boyd SC ’21 is one of TSL’s music columnists. Besides writing, she enjoys listening to (and mixing) music, writing poetry and making art. 

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