There are duel occurrences that inform the band Wolf Alice’s second release “Visions of Life”. The first being the disorienting effect of success that their debut LP 2015’s “My Love is Cool” brought to the members of the band. The second being the all too typical encounter with the downside that occurs when a band does two years of exhaustive, international touring. Toss in the ever-present challenge to avoid the sophomore jinx and what results? As often as not the aftermath will be either a band implosion or the generating of a heck of a lot of source material for the next album. On September 29th Wolf Alice released “Visions of Life” displaying what they have recently experienced as they passed through their trial by fire in the last two years. The album pulls no punches charting the difficulties renown has created for the band members and backs up those insights with accompaniments that display the band’s growing maturity and development.
For the new release, Wolf Alice sees the return of all their prior band members. The mesmerizing Ellie Rowsell returns on vocals and guitars along with Joff Oddie on guitars, Theo Ellis on bass, and Joel Amey on drums. To help them accomplish the herculean task of creating a follow-up to My Love is Cool the band recruited producers Justin Meldal Johnsen along with Tom Elmhirst both of which have produced albums for a storied list of artists including Beck.
With Visions of Life Wolf Alice have no easy task attempting to meet or best their accomplishments with My Love is Cool. That album went to #2 on the UK Album charts and #12 on the US Billboard charts. My Love is Cool was nominated for the 2016 Mercury Prize and Ivor Novello Awards, won the band a Brit Award for British Breakthrough Band, along with winning them the title Best New Band from ITunes in 2015. Taken in total their debut album performed brilliantly for the young band both commercially and critically. Unfortunately with this amount of breakthrough success the follow-up recording becomes a monster of a challenge as expectations are through the roof and Wolf Alice looks to make lightning strike twice.
Simply put Visions of Life is certainly not My Love is Cool Version 2.0. Instead Visions of Life is a challenging record that delves a bit deeper into serious themes when compared with the lighter themed debut. Don’t let that scare you away, the album has much to recommend itself and the majority of the tracks will stick like glue in your psyche and ear as you listen. The opener Heavenward is a lovely gateway into the release. The shoegaze influenced Hypno cool rocker mirrors the wondrous Bros on the prior release. Once again I found myself relishing Ellie’s delightful voice. There is throughout the track an inherent soaring uplift and energy matched with a glorious keening guitar. The song is a tribute to a beloved friend who has passed and loaded with aching pathos signified by lyrics like, “I’m gonna celebrate you forever… go heavenward like all earth angels should.” Where things could have become maudlin the band shows restraint keeping things heartfelt and enticing.
There is much to appreciate on the other eleven tracks. Both Yuk Foo and Beautifully Unconventional have a healthy amount of anger being vented about the frustrations of life and how underappreciated off-kilter individuals are in our world. Yuk Foo speaks to the self-defence mechanism of saying the opposite of what you mean, while Beautifully Unconventional could be the thematic heir to Moaning Lisa’s Smile with both songs become more addictive with each listen. There is a certain brilliance to Don’t Delete the Kisses and how it captures the isolation and yearning for love that exists in our Facebook world. The song narrator could be suffering from a crush or be romantically obsessed but the takeaway is the pain of unrequited love. This is all delivered with a helium-infused vocal and a moody atmospheric late 80’s accompaniment that is so very fitting. This song is a certain grower.
There are a number of songs that speak to the angst of extensive touring and the effects it has on the individual. The songs Planet Hunter, Sky Musings and After Zero Hour all deal with the various drawbacks of fame and identifying what is lost when opting to walk a less-travelled path. On Sky Musings in particular the narrator is captured musing at 40,000 ft above the Earth about the path not chosen. Questioning whether the opportunity for love has been missed while they have been seeking career success. This is best expressed by the lyrics “ two people fell in love on the night of their lives, never meet again until he is married, has a wife” and “23 yrs old you act like it’s over.” There is a palpable claustrophobia captured in the song revealing all the fears that maybe success is not as important as love and that both can’t be in the same frame.
Under the heading of utterly dramatic outings on the recording are St Purple & Green and the title track Visions of Life. St. Purple & Green is an expansive Kate Bush-like drama which presents a sonic counterbalance of Ellie’s angelic vocal with a grittier full-on band approach. The song’s theme is a tribute to a grandmother who is unaffected by current day whims but is a connection to a simpler past. The final track Visions of Life clocks in under just eight minutes and this epic will either be compelling for the listener or an unloved track, there is no middle ground. It is dark, and insistence with a definite cathartic element. Very early in the song, you get the feeling the narrator is not liking the person they think they are becoming. It is in many ways an episode from a kind of mental breakdown reflected in the sonics going all over the shop. However much the song can initially be off-putting, it is filled with unflinching truths such as “I got 1 thousand million friends and feel alone.” With this final track, the band brings a close to what has evidently been a difficult time personally for the band even as their careers reach a high level of success. The song’s overarching theme highlights the truism “be careful what you wish for you might just get it”. This theme is well-travelled ground for many bands that finally break out of obscurity into popular renown and experience a soul-draining extensive tour which makes them question their purpose; see Radiohead circa OK Computer. It is a noteworthy track, which might not be the best beloved on the release but its honesty is something to be respected and admired.
Like a sonic therapy session the release Visions of Life attempts to figure out a sustained identity crisis. It displays Wolf Alice coming out the other side of their crisis drained but ready to head back out into the world wiser and ready for their next close-up. Wolf Alice band members have always been proud of their ability to move on from one phase to another. They have a great inner sense for when they have done what they can for a sonic path they have travelled. On Visions of Life they show off a great deal of maturity and development. The songs are not as easily approachable as on My Love is Cool but instead show a depth that will draw the listener back to investigate the multiple themes throughout the release. There is a certain bravery displayed when a band reveals their innermost thoughts and fears to the public instead of taking the easy route producing version 2.0 of their prior success. With Visions of Life Wolf Alice has been ever so brave!