Music

Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend – Album Review

Confidence.  That’s the word that came to mind upon my initial listen to Wolf Alice’s first new album in almost four entire years.  If their fantastic 2015 debut My Love is Cool was the result of youthful exuberance and the even-better 2017 follow-up Visions of a Life projected a painfully relatable sonic picture of female anxiety, Blue Weekend radiates confidence.  Given that this third album follows a Mercury Prize-winning sophomore and accompanying self-admittance that they kept putting off work due to the expectations and pressure the growing recognition placed on a band, such a result was anything but a sure thing.

And yet, to listen to Blue Weekend is to hear a band increasingly assured and solidly confident in their sense of self and their powers as a unit.  They still have the magpie alt-rock tendencies of their prior albums and Dirty Hit labelmates, where it’s more accurate to say that they have a unifying aesthetic which brings their songs together than a specific sound.  But, and this is not meant at all to diss their prior work, the songwriting has a greater courage and assurance than before.  Whereas previous albums almost tripped over themselves to please, Blue Weekend puts more trust in listeners being willing to stick around and hunt out unexpectedly sticky hooks rather than needing to blast them in the face instantly.

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Take, for example, mid-album soaring highlight ‘How Can I Make It OK?’.  Riding primarily on a pair of dreamy see-sawing synth chords, the song first seems more like a swimming vibe rather than the kind of track one finds themselves humming without prior prompting days later.  Even when Joel Amey’s drums and Theo Ellis’ bass join in, the song doesn’t really explode or possess a unifying scream-worthy chorus akin to the spiritually-similar ‘Don’t Delete the Kisses’.  But with every additional listen, my ears find something new in the mix or the songwriting or the performances which set my dopamine receptors alight.  How the ever-so-slight crunch of the guitars mixes with the bass to add a thick low-end, the tom fills during each “how can I” in every chorus reminding me of mid-80s synthpop like Visage, the intricate vocal arrangements from Ellie Rowsell which add so much to the vibe.  There’s even this subtle processed panning inhale-exhale strobing constantly throughout that I’ve only noticed as I type these words and it’s just making the track right now!

Photo credit – Jordan Hemingway

Markus Dravs was definitely the right choice for a producer, here.  Blue Weekend has the hallmarks of a third album which wants to play for arenas – string embellishments, a greater emphasis on pianos and keyboards, swaying mid-tempo multi-tracked vocal choruses designed for phone-lights in the air – but it’s never overproduced and the more obvious inspirations and self-call-backs don’t overwhelm the band’s central identity.  My current favourite, ‘Lipstick on the Glass’, has more than a touch of Florence + The Machine’s DNA, not entirely sounding out of place from something that would appear on the Dravs-produced How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, especially with Rowsell’s angelic upper-register during the verses.  Yet the way that the track builds, even just the contrast between Rowsell and Joff Oddie’s guitars during the intro and first verse, is distinctly Wolf Alice particularly since they don’t let the symphonic touches detract from the intimacy of the core band performances.  The result shows increased sureness in their own songwriting, a firm balance between expanding the sound without overcooking it, and it’s one of their very best songs to date.

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Further evidence in said confidence can be found all over the record.  Single ‘Smile’ takes the anxiety-attack rage-vomit of ‘Yuk Foo’ and controls it into a compressed, teeth-baring, strutting stomper.  (It’s also kind of a feminine rewrite of ‘Superhero’ by Jane’s Addiction, just thankfully washed clean of the toxic Entourage bro stink; not a bad thing.)  ‘Safe From Heartbreak’ mines mid-70s Fleetwood Mac, specifically ‘Never Going Back Again’, but sweetens that West Coast pop with some English folk and a whole load of contrasting vocal harmonies.  ‘Feeling Myself’ is lyrically a self-love affirmation following the failure of a relationship broken by infidelity and unequal dynamics, but instead opts for sounds significantly darker and more dramatic with siren-like synths on the chorus that make said self-acceptance sound like an anime villain transformation.  ‘No Hard Feelings’ might be the band’s most openly pop moment yet but is also one of their sparsest, nothing but Ellis’ folksy bass and Rowsell’s solo voice (plus a Casio choir during the bridge) for two-and-a-half minutes of sweetly-affecting mature vulnerability.

Photo credit – Jordan Hemingway

In fact, ‘No Hard Feelings’ is maybe Rowsell’s crown jewel as a lyricist so far.  “It’s not hard to remember/When it was tough to hear your name/Crying in the bathtub to ‘Love is a Losing Game’/But there’s only so much sulking/That the heart can entertain” is an incredible verse which has stuck with my hopelessly romantic teen girl self for the last month.  But she’s on fire throughout the entire record, equal parts cutting and conversational, refining her grasp of youthful drama from prior albums.  ‘The Last Man on Earth’ backs up its almost Beatles-ian torchlight with a brilliantly calm evisceration of a self-centred egotistical twit – “Every book you take and you dust off from the shelf/Has lines between lines between lines/That you read about yourself”.  ‘Delicious Things’ revisits the predatory relationship dynamic observed in ‘Formidable Cool’ transplanted to Los Angeles but significantly more empathetic towards its female protagonist, seduced and scared by the image and reality of the Golden State in equal measure.  And her vocal melodies over time reveal themselves to be perhaps her stickiest and most potent yet; seriously, that ‘Lipstick’ chorus is quietly phenomenal.

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In many respects, Blue Weekend is the best collection of songs Wolf Alice have put together.  More dynamic, bolder in their stylistic shifts, equal parts franker and more artistic in the lyricism, played with their tightest technical performances so far, and gorgeously produced and engineered.  Despite all that, however, I hesitate to call it their best album for one simple, likely-innocuous (given how most listen to music nowadays) reason: I don’t think the sequencing flows all that well.  Especially post-‘Smile’, I feel the album whiplashes heavily about the place from song-to-song in ways that still throw me dozens of listens in.  Chasing the glammy stomper of ‘Smile’ with the folksy ‘Safe,’ interrupting the vibey synth-led pairing of ‘How Can I’ and ‘Feeling’ with the nasty coke-addled snarl of ‘Play the Greatest Hits,’ putting ‘No Hard Feelings’ in the penultimate spot…  Visions similarly had an occasionally scattershot sensation, but there it made sense given the album was driven by its central concept of anxiety and depression which unified many of the sudden left-turns.  And I’m not sure this new album, at least with this choice of running order, has a similar unification.

Still, I know that I’m just being a picky music nerd with that complaint and it doesn’t take away from this being another fantastic collection of songs by Britain’s best band today.  In almost every other facet, Blue Weekend is a triumph which sees Wolf Alice increase their proficiency and sonic borders without losing their unique identity or ability to communicate nostalgic youthful heartache in modern terms that feel at once intimate and universal.  Only now they make it look seemingly-effortless.  The pressure has certainly refined this diamond.

Blue Weekend is out now on CD, vinyl, cassette and digital from Dirty Hit.

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