“We’ve become songwriting adults.” That’s how Wolf Alice’s guitarist, Joff Oddie, describes the leap of confidence between the London rockers’ second album, Visions of a Life (2017) and Blue Weekend. No small boast, given that the passionate, genre-spanning Visions won the 2018 Mercury Prize and saw the four-piece hailed as “the best band in Britain”.
But the minute fans start playing Blue Weekend, they’ll understand what Oddie means. The careening thrills of their teenage and early twenties tunes have been replaced by more assured – but still intensely emotional – of singer-songwriter Ellie Rowsell’s structures. If you imagine their old songs as rally cars, the new ones are still driven as wildly, but with steelier focus and in-built roll cages. As with Visions, this third album sees the band hopping between styles – folk, garage rock and shoegaze – only now they’re steering deeper into the corners and controlling the skids.
Formed by Oddie and Rowsell as an acoustic folk duo in 2010 and blooming into an amped-up four-piece with the addition of bassist Theo Ellis and drummer Joel Amey in 2012, the band always had a feminist rage at its core. They took their name from Angela Carter’s 1979 short story: a subversion of “Little Red Riding Hood” about a feral girl raised by wolves. “Like the wild beasts,” Carter wrote, Wolf Alice “lives without a future. She inhabits only the present tense, a fugue of the continuous, a world of sensual immediacy as without hope as it is without despair.”
That’s pretty much the band’s mission statement. This time, though, Rowsell sounds like she’s getting even more personal. There are more love songs than before. When required, she’s in full command of her anger. In the press release for this album she says that some people responded, with horror, to the line “I wanna f*** all the people I meet” (from Visions’ “Yuk Foo”). “As if it was gross that I should be someone who has sex, or is not afraid to talk about it. And then I felt annoyed that there are things that people don’t want me to be.” It was this feeling, she says, that inspired the new track, “Smile”.
Back in ’79, Angela Carter wrote that women “have our smiles, as it were, painted on. Those small, cool, quite Mona Lisa smiles that smile we must, no matter whether it's been fun or it's been not.” On the track, Rowsell fierce-whispers: “Don’t call me mad/ There's a difference, I'm angry/ And your choice to call me cute has offended me/ I have power, there are people who depend on me…” While Rowsell’s voice soars, sweetly free, on the chorus Oddie’s guitar ploughs into a raw riff full of mud-pattering torque.
Elsewhere, Oddie wears his instrument more loosely, allowing the notes to slide with cool ease over the bones of the songs. “The Beach” builds from a stuttered strum. There’s a breeziness to the picking of “Safe from Heartbreak (If You Never Fall In Love)” which is complemented by the prettiness of Rowsell crooning about a lover who “f***s with my feelings”. He throws himself gleefully into the moshpit – along with cheerleader handclaps, screams and a grinding bass – on “Play the Greatest Hits”.
Other songs are driven by keyboards. The sultry “Feeling Myself” has a winking Seventies organ groove that wouldn’t have been out of place on St Vincent’s Daddy’s Home. “The Last Man on Earth” builds from piano and vocals into a classic power ballad and takes a great giddy turn towards the end.
Despite the range of styles, the band have an ongoing tendency drift into a shoegazey sonic blur. But on the penultimate track, “No Hard Feelings”, Oddie splashes out notes with the soft, warm-grey tones of urban rain while Rowsell makes sense of a relationship ending. So while she remembers the pain, she concludes: “There's only so much sulking/ That the heart can entertain/ No hard feelings, honey.” Or, as Carter once wrote: “We must all make do with the rags of love we find flapping on the scarecrow of humanity.” I think the author, who died in 1992, would have loved the band she inspired.
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