Thursday, November 30, 2017

album review: 'visions of a life' by wolf alice

I'm not even sure where to start with this one - and if you saw my last Wolf Alice review, you'll know why.

See, two years ago I did cover their critically acclaimed debut record My Love Is Cool, and unlike the majority of critics I wasn't really a fan, half because I wasn't convinced the band could differentiate themselves from their 90s influences like Hole, and half because when they tried to introduce modern elements into their sound I found them pretty underwhelming, not helped by a lot of overproduction and a lack of a defined edge, especially in the guitars. Yeah, the actual compositions and lyrics were easily the best part of the record, but good writing delivered without the raw presence or firepower to compliment the instrumentation can be a considerable letdown.

But again, the band won a lot of critical acclaim and if anything they were looking to get even more wild and experimental on their follow-up this year Visions Of A Life, swapping out producer Mike Crossey for Justin Mendel-Johnsen, a producer and musician with whom I've got the sort of history that doesn't exactly present a clean picture. Suffice to say he can have a bad habit of piling in distracting instrumental elements that can clutter the mix - and considering Wolf Alice had apparently put together a noisier, more eclectic record this time around, I had no idea if or how his style would click. But hey, the band won just as much if not more critical acclaim this time around, so I might as well talk about it two months late: what did I find on Visions Of A Life?

So I'll be honest, this was a weird listening experience for me, the sort of case where after my first few listens I immediately went back to My Love Is Cool and see if I had missed something since last time. And while the record was a shade better than I remembered, it seemed like most of my criticisms still connected... and yet Visions Of A Life was a bizarre experience, in that it seemed like the strengths for which I had praised the band were diminished in favour of correcting a lot of the weaknesses, almost to the point of feeling like a different band! Now not all of said weaknesses were fixed this time around - one reason that while I think this record is better than My Love Is Cool, I would not call it great - but if this is the direction Wolf Alice is heading, I do think it shows more promise, and I can respect that.

And a huge part of this comes in the sound - and man, it's been a while since I've heard a change in producer improve a record so considerably! Again, I've never been a huge fan of Justin Mendel-Johnsen's work, but his choices to focus on tightening the smoky edge on the guitars, giving the basslines real presence, slightly thicker multi-tracking around Ellie Rowsell's vocals, and more drums over drum machines are all the right ones, naturally thickening the sound and shoegaze elements that always felt muddy and clumsy on My Love Is Cool. Now of course everything is still comfortably blanketed in reverb to really cut or expose a true edge, and if you're expecting a prominent melodic progression to erupt outside of the looping phrases you're going to wind up a little frustrated - indeed, I would say that contributes to many of these songs not quite feeling as immediately catchy as they were on the debut - but overall the tones are more agreeable... and yet they also expose a few less-welcome shortcomings. The first is a carryover from their debut: without more distinctive melodic hooks, it can feel a little bit distracting when you can trace the immediate sonic inspiration of many of these songs, especially when they try to inject a little more of a punk vibe on songs like 'Space & Time' or 'Yuk Foo', the latter of which might as well be a Perfect Pussy b-side from Say Yes To Love, or how 'Beautifully Unconventional' reads as a much more polished Ex Hex or Sleater-Kinney track, or how songs like 'After The Zero Hour' owe a particularly obvious debt to the more atmospheric ambient folk you could find from Fiona Apple or Neko Case. Now let me stress this isn't inherently a bad thing - every act I just mentioned I like - but it's also revealing of the second major shortcoming, and that comes in many of the compositions themselves. As I said, most of these songs don't quite have the same driving melodic hooks that stuck so prominently from their last record, and I have to tack at least some of that down to compositions that can feel bizarrely misshapen, typically cropped short on songs like 'Beautifully Unconventional' and 'Planet Hunter' but in some cases missing a bridge or a true crescendo moment to put them over the top - and the latter song is probably close to my favourite on the album! 

Now again, that's not saying there aren't tracks that connect: 'Heavenward' is a solid slice of noisy shoegaze, the firmer flutters around the gentle cushion of vocals on 'Don't Delete The Kisses' builds impressively well with one of the better hooks, the thicker late-60s-inspired groove on 'Formidable Cool' has some impressive simmer, 'Sadboy' takes the liquid layers of warm guitar to spike off accents of distortion pretty well, and the closing title track manages its noisy transitions effectively over its eight minute runtime. But now we have to get to the lyrics - and here's where the comparison to Wolf Alice's inspirations really hurt them, because I was surprisingly underwhelmed here. Like on My Love Is Cool Ellie Rowsell does seem to have keen insight into her younger protagonists in their uneasy transition towards the open-ended questions of adulthood, with a full splatter painting of emotions on display that do at least feel consistent. The antisocial rage of 'Yuk Foo', the unsettled panic and anxiety of 'Sky Musings' and 'Space & Time', the decay and death of elder figures on 'Heavenward' and 'St. Purple & Green', all with the sense that Rowsell was bottling these emotions away and only now is showing the confidence to let them free - hell, that was literally the arc of 'Don't Delete The Kisses', and I like how she's more willing to show that naked emotionality there and on the title track - even if it demands pain, there's a deeper satisfaction to be won. And yet at the same time, it's hard not to feel like it's bottled into songs that may have the emotionality of adolescence and yet miss some of the nuance, drawing allusions to other art like on 'Beautifully Unconventional' or even the cult-like appeal of Charles Manson on 'Formidable Cool' but not willing to really plumb deeper - broad strokes that capture the picture, but miss some of the depth by relying on stories and metaphors that stick pretty close to cliche. An easy comparison point for me is Alvvays, another group that is shameless in borrowing from the past, but does so in the service of absolutely terrific hooks and writing that reflects both a deeper narrative and real insight.

But I have to be honest here: the element that has always pushed me away from Wolf Alice is Ellie Rowsell herself. And to some extent I'm a little baffled why that is: she's certainly passable emulating the styles that would fit with this music, and Mendel-Johnsen is smart enough to give her more multi-tracking that complements her thinner tones - hell, she even sticks with more of her lower-to-mid-register this time. And yet with every song I find myself not gripped whatsoever by her delivery - maybe it's the production that places her further back, maybe it's an odd mismatch in content and delivery, where she'd perhaps be more convincing selling this material with more open, adolescent sincerity in comparison with the reserve she brings here, or maybe it's when placed in contrast with other acts in this vein, there's a deeper well of charisma or presence or raw intensity that fits the style that Rowsell just doesn't have yet, especially when she tries to utilize a hushed sing-talk delivery that seems to cry out for more emotion or production that could compliment subtlety if it's there.

But as it is... look, I do think Visions Of A Life is a transitional step in the right direction. I know there are some who consider My Life Is Cool the stronger record - when it comes to composition on a structural level it probably was, and the sharp songwriting did save most of it from production choices that just didn't work for me - but again, that's my issue. Visions Of A Life, on the other hand, makes the right production choices but marries them to more scattered writing and composition, which leads to a better tone but rougher fundamentals. But really, that is enough to push this to a light 6/10, and when you factor in the vocals that are just not clicking for me, I think I'm inclined to say Wolf Alice just isn't for me, and if you're more of a fan, I recommend you check this out. Again, I'm not really blown away or impressed, but for Wolf Alice, I do see some potential if they continue down this path, mature a bit, and refine some of the details - and hell, in my books that's worth following, so check it out.

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