Wolf Alice began as a folk band. Not that you would know it if you had only heard their Grammy-nominated grunge single, “Moaning Lisa Smile,” or their commanding trysts into riot grrrl punk music (“Yuk Foo,” “Play the Greatest Hits”). You cannot pigeonhole the London group, not when they leaped from sophisticated balladry to shoegaze to rip-roaring metal tracks on their 2017 Mercury Prize-winning album, Visions of a Life. That’s why I love them so much. There’s always been something for everybody to love: if you like Mazzy Star, you will love “After The Zero Hour.” If you want to hear the British heavy metal revival, I reckon you will be impressed by “Visions of a Life.” If you like Britpop, “The Last Man On Earth” recalls the boldness, effortless cool, and timeless songwriting that defines What’s The Story (Morning Glory)? as a modern classic.
Last week, Wolf Alice returned with Blue Weekend. And, guess what? You still can’t label them as rock, or pop, or grunge, or anything. It’s simply Wolf Alice. The band’s third album is their most consistent effort and vocalist Ellie Rowsell’s songwriting has matured beyond belief. Joff Oddie (lead guitar), Joel Amey (drums), and Theo Ellis (bass) have stretched with her. The growth is evident in “How Can I Make It OK?” – it’s one of many times where the bass is front and center, grooving with Rowsell’s soaring vocal. Complimented by understated synth and guitar work, the track begs the question, “had life before been so slow?” to collective shoulder slumps in quarantine. Honestly, having been a fan for years, I can confidently say that she has never sounded better than the a capella ending of “Safe from Heartbreak (“If You Never Fall in Love).”
While Justin Meldal-Johnsen was the perfect companion on Visions of a Life, Wolf Alice made the right call to choose a different producer for Blue Weekend. Markus Dravs (Coldplay, Björk, Arcade Fire) joined the team this time around, who, according to Win Butler, “kicks people into shape.” He isn’t wrong – Dravs pulled the best out of Arcade Fire for Funeral, Neon Bible, and The Suburbs; the best out of Coldplay on Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, and now the best out of Wolf Alice.
Just listen to a song like “Lipstick on the Glass” and take it in. A driving acoustic baritone guitar, funky bass, and demanding drums envelop Rowsell’s hushed falsetto. Like many songs on Blue Weekend, the chorus and bridge showcase just how strong Wolf Alice’s songwriting has become. The hooks are unforgettable. With its fuzzy guitars and whispered, feisty vocal, “Smile” is unremarkable until it hits you that the track is the spiritual successor to “Yuk Foo.” Where “Yuk Foo” targeted expectations of Rowsell as someone’s partner, a friend, and as a woman in an abrasive fashion, “Smile” is tempered when acknowledging the degrading comments towards angry women. “Did you think I was a puppet on strings?” she asks cheekily before offering the response, “wind her up, and this honeybee stings.”
There’s another typical Wolf Alice banger on Blue Weekend in “Play the Greatest Hits.” Riot grrrl influenced songs are often polarizing for the band’s fanbase, but they truly belong on this record. Most of the album is a tearjerker, therefore making the “fun” songs essential in the sequencing. Despite the screeching guitars and Rowsell’s screams, it’s clear that she hasn’t accomplished numbing herself in anger with a line like, “And I am so weak, I fall in love with the first fucking creep to open his arms.” Good thing “Play the Greatest Hits” is followed by the extraordinary female pleasure anthem, “Feeling Myself” – she deserves better.
“Keep my name on your lips, let the double L feel like a kiss,” Rowsell sighs beneath swelling synths and distorted guitars on the best Wolf Alice song to date. At least, that’s what I believed until the tension of “The Last Man On Earth” builds and builds until an epic coda takes hold. The star this time (until Ellie’s ethereal vocal skyrockets into the stratosphere again) is Mike Olsen on the cello, who assists the band in taking “The Last Man On Earth” to grand new heights. “Every book you take and you dust off from the shelf has lines between lines that you read about yourself,” Rowsell sings, taking my breath away. I have no idea what this song is truly about, but that hardly matters when a track feels so majestic.
Wolf Alice were the UK’s most promising new band after releasing their debut album, My Love Is Cool, and leveled that promise by releasing an album that could’ve been My Love Is Cool part two but thankfully wasn’t with Visions of a Life. Where does a band go after winning the prestigious Mercury Prize award with only two albums under their belt? Well, they take advantage of four years between albums and mature. Wolf Alice grabbed the most vital elements from the Blush and Creature Songs EPs and their studio albums, expanded on them, and grew.
On Blue Weekend, every song is excellent and catchy. Ellie Rowsell turns from vague stories open to interpretation and allows herself to be vulnerable. The band gained essential knowledge from Oasis, Radiohead, and The Verve. The lesson is that those classic songs we know and love feel invincible, larger than life, and make you feel grateful to exist alongside otherworldly music. I’m not suggesting that there’s a “Don’t Look Back In Anger,” “Planet Telex,” or “The Drugs Don’t Work” on Blue Weekend. However, there is “The Beach” and “The Last Man On Earth,” and they move me as much as the aforementioned classic tracks do. We will return to this album in 20 years and marvel at the songwriting. I believe that this album belongs in a time capsule, so humanity never forgets these songs.