The 2016 election never ended. It dinged us bad. Like a fractured car windshield, we’ve been cracking inch by inch ever since. We’re retreating into our own respective principalities of thought. We’re perusing internet spaces tailored around our specific tastes and buying habits. We’re watching cable-news shows honoring perpendicular ideologies. We’re retreating into our homes. We’re texting instead of calling, and paying Postmates and Uber Eats to save us from the chore of human interaction. We’re nervous in public spaces, traumatized by weekly spree killings and a government too gridlocked by its ties to gun lobbyists to offer much more than well wishes. We’re staring down a climate catastrophe, too incapacitated by the daily deluge of awful news and infighting to pull the foot off the gas pedal that’s got us speeding toward the bottom of the ocean. Some days, keeping up normal routines feels like daring to buffet a rising tide.
The adage about hard times mothering great art is a grisly truism. Slavery spawned spirituals. Folk and country were borne in part out of the crucible of the Depression. Civil rights and war overseas stoked the outpouring of soul and psychedelic rock in the ’60s. Broken cities bore hardened inner-city poets who would go on to father hip-hop on sound systems fueled by stolen electricity. At the end of the 20th century, mounting anxieties and advances in tech turned music into collage art, and gave songs a postmodern secondary layer of meaning. In 1988, N.W.A. flipped prideful, celebratory James Brown and Parliament songs into soundtracks for street wars. The following spring, Chinese students fighting for democracy in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square used Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9” (which borrowed words from “Ode to Joy,” the 18th-century poem about freedom whose author, German writer Friedrich Schiller, famously hated it) as an act of protest, drowning out government broadcasts on systems powered by friends’ car batteries. Times get bleak, and art becomes our comfort, our strength, and our defense.
It’s easy to forget that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Chicago roots rock experimentalists Wilco’s finest hour, was originally intended to be released on September 11th, amid the record label hiccups that prevented most listeners from hearing the album until spring of 2002. Foxtrot encapsulates the eerie calm of that summer, though, the last summer we ever got to feel free, after which a new generation of Americans was ushered into the knowledge that the children of the ’40s and ’50s, the drafted young adults of the ’60s, and the radicals of the ’70s learned the hard way: You could get blown up any day of the week. It’s impossible now to hear Foxtrot’s songs about wars on war, and quaking skyscrapers, and flags charred to bits out of the shadow of the September tragedy it can almost see and smell. Like many of our greatest songwriters, Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy is as adept at capturing the specificity of an emotion in words as he is at divining the pulse of the overarching times those feelings figure into. Foxtrot isn’t an album about dark times coming. It’s an album about battening down the hatches, a wise and almost too timely word for fall of 2001.
Tweedy touches the zeitgeist again with this week’s Ode to Joy, Wilco’s 11th album, and the third full-length for the singer-songwriter in the last 12 months, counting Warm and Warmer, the twin solo albums he released around his memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back). Joy is a thrilling new beginning for the band, following the folk and rock recalibrations of 2015’s Star Wars and 2016’s Schmilco. It’s a brutalist redesign of the sprawling sound Wilco has been building since Tweedy took most of Uncle Tupelo’s Anodyne-era lineup with him for 1995’s A.M., and the newly christened band logged its first masterpiece with 1996’s Being There. Drummer Glenn Kotche’s propulsive drums are the guiding light here (in the same way his clattering percussion was one of the defining features of his, Tweedy, and Jim O’Rourke’s self-titled full-length as Loose Fur.) On cuts like “Bright Leaves,” “Quiet Amplifier,” and “Before Us,” Kotche sets an orderly pace, and the rest of the band falls in line, like a caravan. The effect is something like the glum, tribal thud of the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs.” Ode to Joy attempts for folk what doom achieves with metal, breaking the thing down to its building blocks: foreboding noise and the truth. It’s stripped but not empty, though, full of gorgeous sonics that light its unrelenting dark.
Ode to Joy is haunted by relationships that aren’t working, people arguing so much they forget what the point of the dispute was, shrinking away from each other and from everyone else by shutting up inside. “One and a Half Stars” is either a Yelp-like rating on a crumbling connection or a yarn about a guy who’s “two-stories high in bed all day” and interacting with the world solely through message apps and delivery services. As it was with Foxtrot, the urge to read Joy as a state of the union address for the tech-giant generation receiving this music is enticing. The grappling with boundaries and definitions of self in the third verse of “Everyone Hides” (“… You’re selling yourself on a vision, a dream of who you are / An idea of how it should be, and a wish upon a star”) is the same Jungian war between masks and true selves that social media aggravates in regular users. “White Wooden Crosses” is a devastating tune about the randomness of death — “A white wooden cross by the side of the road / One someone lost that I did not know / What would I do? What would I do / If a white wooden cross meant that I’d lost you?” — that replicates the morbid internal dialogue we all have when a terrible act is committed in a familiar location. “Crosses” is a love song in pallbearer’s clothes. The point is that the protagonist is happy, not that he’s in danger.
The point of naming this collection of stories of people coping with death and uncertainty after one of the best-known songs about unbridled jubilation is that perseverance takes courage when folding seems most natural. A time where we wake up to the horrors of the world every morning is a time where we’re most in need of joy. You can hear Tweedy hash this out, albeit grimly, in “Hold Me Anyway,” a song whose title appears to be the daunting answer to the question at the end of the chorus: “Are we all in love just because? / No, I think it’s poetry and magic / Something too big to have a name / And when we get it right, it’s still tragic / And when you die who’s to blame? / Did you think everything would be okay?” Death is inevitable. Till then, get out there and live.