Jeff Tweedy didn’t want to record new music for the sake of making an album.
The Wilco frontman spent the last couple of years putting out solo music and publishing his memoir in which he details the ups and downs in his life. So when it came time to get the band back together, Tweedy wanted to make sure it felt right and that he had something new to say.
In his words, “nobody needs more Wilco music.”
“That concept was more of a way to motivate ourselves, to try a little bit harder to make something more meaningful to us,” Tweedy told HuffPost at Build Series. “Not just to reconfirm an audience … We want to be serious about this.”
It didn’t hurt that there was a lot of material from which to draw. The last Wilco album, “Schmilco,” landed in September 2016 ― before Donald Trump was elected president. The political goings-on over the past couple of years prompted Tweedy to think about how people are faring during this time.
“I didn’t want to comment directly on the moment we’re in politically. Our overall national climate is a fairly disturbing one for most of the people I spend a lot of time with. And at the same time, I thought that making a record without there being any kind of reference to that would be sort of dishonest,” he said.
Although direct lyrical references to the political climate are few, Wilco channeled the feelings through the actual music.
“I think it’s more there in the way the drums are recorded and the way that the sonic landscape of the record is a little disturbing in spite of there being some pop songs and a sensitivity to one’s more personal type of feelings, not about the world at large,” Tweedy said. “Which I think is an important thing for everybody to concern themselves with is self-care. You can’t weigh your troubles against the world’s troubles all the time. I think you should be a good neighbor. I think you should be a good citizen and be willing to work and sacrifice to help other people … But you’re not going to be much use to anyone if you’re not taking care of yourself as well.”
That self-care, Tweedy said, also involves finding happiness during these dark times.
Hence the name of the new album. “Ode to Joy” is about “preserving that part of yourself that’s able to experience joy.”
The first single, “Love is Everywhere (Beware),” dates back to January 2017 ― around the time of the Women’s March, the protest held the day after Trump’s inauguration.
“I remember feeling very uplifted by the experience of marching with hundreds of thousands of people and feeling un-alone, or feeling like there’s a connection and there were people who were paying attention and feeling upset about the same things,” Tweedy said. “And at the same time, I also had a panic attack that day ― that this is not going to be enough and that’s what that song is kind of about. Is this going to be enough and ultimately, I don’t think it is. Just to reconfirm that we have privilege and we’re OK. I think it’s going to require some sacrifice that a lot of people are going to be challenged to commit to.”
Tweedy wrote the songs for “Ode to Joy” on an acoustic guitar and recorded them with the band at his home studio, dubbed The Loft, in Chicago. He describes this new batch of material as big folk songs.
“For the most part I think what we are going for was to make the folk songs still be pretty evident and at the same time, create a monolithic, brutal structure underneath it. Which is an accurate depiction of what I feel right now. I feel like I’m singing about my feelings when there are kids in cages,” Tweedy said, referring to the immigration detention practices of the current administration. “I think that’s a tough thing to adjust yourself to as an artist and that was the best I can do to comment on it without … giving them too much. I don’t want to give them as much of that energy.”
“Ode to Joy” will be released on Oct. 4.
For the full interview with Tweedy and Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, check out the video below.