On “Play the Greatest Hits”, two and a half minutes of driving uptempo punk that comes three quarters of the way through Wolf Alice’s new album Blue Weekend, lead singer and guitarist Ellie Rowsell shout-sings: “I don’t look too far forward, I definitely don’t look back.” It’s not designed to be the most profound moment of the album, which elsewhere is soaring and expansive – she even uses a silly voice to deliver it. But it feels true. Wolf Alice – comprising Rowsell on guitar and vocals, Joff Oddie on guitar, Theo Ellis on bass and Joel Amey on drums – are a band grounded in the present, invested in exactly where they are. And if you thought they couldn’t get any better after 2015 debut My Love is Cool and 2017’s Visions of a Life, you were wrong.
Blue Weekend, out today, could be described as Wolf Alice growing into themselves, cementing their identity – but that wouldn’t be quite true. They have always had a distinct identity. Rather, Blue Weekend is a natural progression, building on a foundation of musical wisdom and delivering complex ideas with staggering confidence. It still has all the old Wolf Alice hallmarks – heavy grunge riffs, spacey harmonies, an irresistible defiance – and offers them effortlessly, without a hint of self-doubt.
Blue Weekend is dominated by guitar but is as varied as it is idiosyncratic – sometimes shoegaze, sometimes acoustic, sometimes pure noise. Similarly, Rowsell’s vocal oscillates between husky grunge and soaring soprano, and transitions seamlessly from vulnerable and childlike to shrieking banshee. On single “Smile”, there’s indignation and rebellion as she spits out lyrics in a half-whisper (“If you don’t like me then that isn’t fucking relevant”) and coats lines in her best hammy, loopy-loo sarcasm (“Now you all think I’m unhinged!”). Elsewhere, even within the same songs, she is serious and reflective: “Smile” descends, after frenetic verses, into a mellow chorus. In “Lipstick on the Glass” Rowsell dominates in a reverb-heavy upper register, recalling Kate Bush. Long, meandering backing melodies and choruses, essential to the Wolf Alice sound, give everything room to breathe.
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On “Delicious Things”, a vocal riff begins to sound like a maniacal scream as the track builds; here, you can hear the influence of the extensive live tours for which Wolf Alice are known. In Michael Winterbottom’s 2016 docudrama On the Road, we watched them trudge around European venues and UK university campuses to perform powerful, energetic shows night after night, rarely returning home for more than a few days: a post-Spotify picture of what it means to be a musician. “Delicious Things” is bemused by this strange lifestyle, revealing that perhaps there is still some wonder to be found in it: “… a girl like me, would you believe I’m in Los Angeles”, Rowsell sings over a shuffling beat. “I won’t say no, I’ll give it a go,” she sings, of drugs and parties and people, as the song gets bigger and bigger. At the end most of the instruments drop out, with just a piano playing the melody: it’s only a memory.
There are several softer moments like this: Rowsell has historically pushed back against writing about romance, but here we see a different side to her. “Safe From Heartbreak (If You Never Fall in Love)” is an acoustic guitar-led love-avoidance ditty, with male backing vocals and thick, sweet harmonies creating a 3D effect. Later, on “No Hard Feelings”, Rowsell is “crying in the bathtub to ‘Love is a Losing Game’”.
Most ambitious are the dreamy soundscapes of “How Can I Make it OK?” and “Feeling Myself”, the first full of sadness and desperation, the second sex and self-confidence. “How Can I Make it OK?” captures anxiety and stasis by contrasting lush harmonies with the steady beat of a metronome. The title lyric is sung in spiky staccato, rubbing up against anguished cries of “I just want you to be happy”. Similarly, “Feeling Myself”, Wolf Alice’s answer to an empowerment anthem, juxtaposes celestial strings with Rowsell’s barely audible whisper, and stays grounded as Rowsell floats through the chorus: “Now I’m really feeling myself.”
Out of context, this line could sound like a cliché. But Blue Weekend could not be further from it: it is sparklingly original, a masterpiece by a British band in their prime, confirmation that they are one of the greats. It does not sound like cliché, or even a statement of identity. It sounds like freedom.