Presented with one of their hardest challenges yet, writing a follow up to their near-perfect second album, Wolf Alice have not backed down, creating an album that’s further cemented their position as a once-in-a-generation band
There’s a sort of unwritten rule in the music biz that “second albums” are meant to be really tough. The pressure that comes with them is immense for any artist; the pressure to live up to the hype and continue down the path your debut effort started you on; to capitalise; to make the most of the moment. But what if you’ve not only passed the second album test, but blown it so far out of the water with Visions Of A Life that the music press at the time hailed you as the best band in the UK? What if you’re a band as good as Wolf Alice, with two top-five charting albums, a Grammy nod and a Mercury Prize to your name? In that case, you keep doing what you’ve been doing, only better: you write Blue Weekend.
The pressure of being “the UK’s best band”, and having to live up to that reputation, clearly wasn’t lost on Wolf Alice when they finished the tour for Visions. They took some time off in 2019, going their separate ways in order to work on other projects (like guitarist Joff Oddie’s solo folk album) or to try and recapture some semblance of the normality that had slipped away after so much time on tour. That time apart was clearly useful. It’s probably a big reason why, when the pandemic kicked off last year and they found themselves stuck in a studio in Belgium, they were able to spend the time honing the album instead of just climbing the walls.
As a result, Blue Weekend is glossier than anything that’s come before. The airy, spacious opener ‘The Beach’, for example, builds from a single, chugging guitar riff to a crescendo replete with expertly layered harmonies and synths which wouldn’t sound out of place in the climax of a film score. ‘Lipstick On The Glass’ is also filled with light and intricate layers; frontwoman Ellie Rowsell’s vocals echo and flutter while the guitars and synths shimmer. It’s the handiwork of Markus Dravs, whose past work includes, among others Arcade Fire, Coldplay, and Florence + The Machine, and it makes for an album which operates on an altogether grander scale. It’s a bold move, but one that pays off. Where Wolf Alice albums previously dabbled in grandiosity, pomp, and swagger, Blue Weekend revels. It’s the sound of a band finally doing things on their terms, and their terms only.
But Blue Weekend is still able to find calm contemplation, and there are plenty of moments that are more personal than before. ‘Safe From Heartbreak (If I Never Fall In Love)’ combines country-tinged, plucked guitars with ABBA style harmonies, while ‘No Hard Feelings’ is a taut, devastating rumination on coming to terms with an ending relationship. Rowsell’s lyrics feel more worldly here, sharpened, or softened as the case may be, by time and experiences both good and bad. And perhaps, given new life by the increased confidence that comes from being a successful band, from putting yourself into your art and receiving love and warmth in return. As she noted recently, “it’s just being older and not being so afraid, and being a tiny bit more comfortable in the world.”
On the other end of the sonic spectrum is ‘Smile’, this album’s answer to Visions’ ‘Yuk Foo’, which drew no small amount of indignation from… certain types. Here Rowsell is once again railing against the labels put upon her as a woman in the music industry. It’s every bit as necessary and vitriolic as ‘Yuk Foo’, and serves as a savage, fist-pumping counter point to some of the album’s softer moments.
And this contrast in musical styles shows that, for all its heart and personality, Blue Weekend is threaded together all the way through by expert musicianship. Whether it’s Joel Amey’s drums on the raucous and caustic ‘All The Greatest Hits’, Theo Ellis’ chunky bassline on ‘How Can I Make It OK’ or the arrangement on ‘Delicious Things’, Blue Weekend manages something very special: to take its sounds in directions you wouldn’t expect, but which still feel perfectly natural. The influences are there to be heard: from breathy, fluttering, Kate Bush-esque vocals on ‘Lipstick On The Glass’ to echoes of Elastica on the punk-infused ‘All The Greatest Hits’, or Massive Attack on the standout ‘Feeling Myself’. But they’re all applied perfectly into a product that sounds inimitably, defiantly, original.
Visions Of A Life presented Wolf Alice with perhaps the hardest job in British music in recent memory: writing a follow up to Visions Of A Life. As it turns out, in Blue Weekend Wolf Alice have released an album that’s not only a follow-up, but easily their best album yet, which (further) cements their status as a once-in-a-generation band. Boy, is this one going to take some beating.
Wolf Alice’s Blue Weekend is out now, and is available to stream and purchase now.