Written by Jack Andrew Cribb
Wolf Alice’s debut album My Love Is Cool, released in 2015, cemented their work as some of the best being produced in the world of British guitar-driven music. They disregarded the death of classic British indie and went off to do their own thing, a cool breezy mixture of folk and grungy rock. We had to ask at that point, would they fall foul of the second album curse that afflicts so many bands? Well, they haven’t. At all.
The bands interests and ambitions don’t seem to fit into conventional genre paradigms. My Love Is Cool mashed up so many sounds, and their latest release Visions Of A Life has done a very much improved version of the same. It’s can be endlessly frenetic in parts, and then delightfully soft in others, proclaiming that the Brit-Rock of old can go ‘Yuk’ itself, because Wolf Alice are here and they do not deal in stereotypes. Their music is set apart from their forebears, the likes of The Libertines and The Arctic Monkeys, because of its inherent invoking of spirituality and genuine introspectiveness.
Visions Of A Life is both morbid and joyful, truthfully capturing a Dionysian rendering of post-teenage years in an English world bereft of meaning. Lies, cheating, dancing, loving, anxiety, and confidence populate this album and clash like capricious and ancient Greek gods.
All this tumult is centred by the delicate shoegaze operatics that Vision Of A Life, and other Wolf Alice works are based around. Frontwoman Ellie Rowsell’s vocals provide a melancholic smooth over everything, reminiscent of the style of Cocteau Twins Elizabeth Fraser. We have to mention that Visions Of A Life was recorded with producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who worked with M83 on their 2011 Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming album. We feel this shoegaze tint on tracks like Planet Hunter, and Sky Musings, both seemingly named for celestial areas. Driving synth leads both of these tracks from gentle compositions into heavy conflict. The first track of the album, Heavenward, has the kind of punchy shoegaze/ post-rock wall of sound you can find in any work of Explosions In The Sky, or the earlier work of Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
Not everything is the well-tempered and almost angelic vibe Wolf Alice, with Rowsell’s soprano melodics and sweeping synths, sometimes Visions Of A Life descends into a volcanic and feral machination. Particularly strong and evocative of this is second track Yuk Foo. This track allows the band to really invoke their grungier sides, with lyrics such as:
Yeah I have feelings, ’cause I’m a human
A totally self-destructive, constantly consuming
And now I’m fucked, and that fucks you too
So fuck the world, and you, and you and you and
These ideas and violent outbursts effectively bleed into your ears. The song, which was “meant as a ‘fuck you’ to the expectations people place on you, whether that’s as a friend, a lover or an artist […] It was actually one of the funnest songs on the album to record. It’s not meant to be taken completely seriously.” As explained by Rowsell, shows the band’s worst perceptions of life in your twenties; the bullshit, the battles, the braggadocio. It’s a drastically different sound from the stirring and poetic Don’t Delete The Kisses.
The storytelling ability of Wolf Alice is one of their strongest traits. Lyrics can be sung or spoken, which further destabilises their sound in the best of ways. It provides the basis to truly capture emotion as a performance. Sometimes this ends up in clichés, and yet lyrically, Wolf Alice seem to be able to turn these clichés into powerful tools, used to describe the forgotten profundity of everyday feelings, especially when back up by the eclectic folk-rock-post-rock-shoegaze-synthscape-cabal that the band employ. Formidable Cool is a grand example of this, a story inspired by the novel ‘The Girls’ by Emma Cline, which is about a young teenager falling in love with a Charles Manson-like figure. It revolves around naivety, love, lust, and fear, with Rowsell speaking the words:
The moment that you meet him
Your name shoots up up on the list of the deathpool
You’ll find him in his seedy setup
At the community dance hall
Pink lights flicker
His hand in somebody’s knickers
This messianic playboy figure is almost universalised. It’s a common trope that can be felt in many nightclubs and is alluded to in many teen stories. It’s mercilessly unsympathetic to the character, but also reveals in its expletive nature the tragedy of modern romance, which certainly does invoke an empathy for those involved. In my honest opinion, I believe this album captures many aspects of modern Britain, painting them in extreme, candid, and sumptuously beautiful frames. It’s an album of modern mythologies.
The album finishes on the eponymous track Visions Of A Life. It shows the heady talents of bassist Theo Ellis and drummer Joel Amey in their construction of a tense and evil sounding rhythm section. It’s an epic three parter, clocking in at 7:57, the longest contribution to the album. I’m reminded of the early work of Refused or La Dispute in its switching from one part to the next like a dark play, ready to act out some final display of horror and catharsis. In an album concerned with mortality and meaning, it’s poignant that the final act should be one that becomes a summation of them both, but also offers no respite for the pain that comes with either.
‘Human heart in my hand/ Heart in my, human heart in my hand/ Taking it back, eyes straight ahead/ Cut it in half, better than dead’ Speculation is to be found on the final word of the album being ‘dead’, with the conclusion being this is a mournful album. I’d argue we should focus on this verse as a whole, where it is better to have only half a heart than to be dead.