In 2015, Wilco surprise-released a record called “Star Wars,” a surreal assemblage of songs that had nothing to do with the legendary movie franchise. Four years later, the band has accomplished a similar head-fake with its 11th studio album, “Ode to Joy” (dBpm Records, out Friday), a title that references the Friedrich Schiller poem made famous in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
But anyone who comes to “Ode to Joy” expecting Beethovenian rapture and millions embracing will likely be perplexed by this enigmatic 11-song collection. The album is mostly slow and muted, as though, a quarter-century into its existence, Wilco had suddenly become suspicious of the whole idea of being a rock band. Drummer Glenn Kotche and guitarist Nels Cline are the most obviously reined in. Many of Kotche’s rhythms are heavy and square. Cline gets a couple of brief freak-out solos (in the bleak “We Were Lucky”); elsewhere his work is largely confined to adding subtle washes of color to a largely acoustic texture. “Every guitar is denied,” Jeff Tweedy sings in “Quiet Amplifier,” a line that functions almost like a statement of purpose.
Lyrically, if the record really is an ode to joy, it’s an awfully strange one. “I don’t like/The way you’re treating me” are Tweedy’s quiet first words from “Bright Leaves,” the desolate opener, delivered over Kotche’s march-steady beat. Even though the song seems to be a tribute to constancy and perseverance — “you never change,” he repeats 10 times at the end — there’s a sense of fragility, that the whole thing might just fall apart. “Remember when wars would end?/Now when something’s dead/We try to kill it again,” he intones in his trademark half-sing-half-whisper in “Before Us.”
There’s enough darkness in the songs to make you wonder whether the title is meant ironically. In “White Wooden Cross,” a reflection on mortality inspired by the sight of a roadside memorial, Tweedy asks, “What would I do?/If the white wooden cross/Meant that I lost you?” Even the two catchiest songs undermine their own sense of fun: “Everyone Hides” (for which the band made a charmingly self-referential video) seems to be about the impossibility of putting forward your true self to others, and “Love Is Everywhere (Beware)” undercuts its own cheery message in the title.
You have to listen hard for the joy, but in the end it’s there — the kind of joy of that’s hard-won and never fully shakes off the difficult and broken world from which it emerges. Tweedy describes it most clearly in “Hold Me Anyway.” “I think it’s poetry and magic,” he sings, the music finally swinging into sunny, uncomplicated pop. “Something too big to have a name/And when you get it right it’s still tragic/And when you die, who’s to blame?” It may not be the universal embrace that Schiller and Beethoven envisioned, but, Wilco seems to say, it’s the best we’re going to do, and all the more valuable for that.
Wilco plays the Boch Center Wang Theatre Oct. 10-11.