Wolf Alice: Blue Weekend review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week

(Dirty Hit)
On their third and best album, the London four-piece embrace a more polished, widescreen sound that serves their sharp writing on late-20s anxieties

There’s a very striking line midway through the fourth track on Wolf Alice’s third album, a pointed burst of righteous anger called Smile: “I am what I am and I’m good at it,” shouts Ellie Rowsell, “and you don’t like me, well that isn’t fucking relevant.”

This is swaggering stuff, particularly from someone whose public image, as Smile points out, is that of a sensitive artist, a wary interviewee. Then again, perhaps Wolf Alice have the right to swagger. Two Top 5 albums, a Mercury prize and a Grammy nomination into their career, they have come a long way in a climate where what would once have been called “indie” music is supposed to struggle.

On the face of it, they seem like a very 2020s kind of band, built for a pop world in which relatability and mild aspiration is more important than glamour and the selling of dreams. For all the attention from Vogue – “Here’s How An It Brit Does Glastonbury Style” – Rowsell seems noticeably more “older sister’s famously cool mate” than “rock star blessed with otherworldly charisma”. Her lyrics tend to deal in the everyday frustrations of twentysomething life; whether in character or not, it comes as a mild shock to hear her singing about accepting any drugs she’s offered in Los Angeles on Blue Weekend’s Delicious Things.

Nor are they a band who have bought into time-honoured rock mythology suggesting a life more glamorous, weird, transgressive and exciting than your own. The 2017 tour documentary On the Road made being in Wolf Alice look like a job, a monotonous, gruelling round of faintly underwhelming experiences that director Michael Winterbottom compared to “a horrific form of camping”. Equally, their most obvious musical references points – shoegazing and grunge, a touch of Elastica about their punkier moments – largely date from the early 90s. Their influences are deftly applied, but audible enough to attract an audience who recall this stuff first time around. There’s something there for the 16-year-olds and the BBC Radio 6 Music listeners who remember when the O2 Forum was called the Town and Country Club.

It’s a recipe for a certain level of success, but Blue Weekend is fairly obviously a lunge for something bigger. The producer’s chair is occupied by Markus Dravs, whose CV – Coldplay, Arcade Fire, Florence + the Machine – suggests that he’s very much the kind of guy you phone if you find your ambitions extending a little further than your present status. It’s a move compounded by circumstance: trapped in a residential recording studio by the Covid pandemic, the band opted to spend their time polishing an album they had previously thought was virtually finished.

Wolf Alice: The Last Man on Earth – video

The move for something bigger can be the moment when artists falter, where a glaring discrepancy between ambition and ability is revealed, or a desire to perform on a bigger stage swamps the essence of what made people like you in the first place. But, as it turns out, boldness suits Wolf Alice better than you might expect. Listening to Blue Weekend, you’re struck by an appealing sense of everything clicking into place. The sound is more polished and widescreen – the heave and echo of the effects-laden guitars on Feeling Myself conjure an alternative universe in which Slowdive had played stadiums; the punky blast of Play the Greatest Hits thunders along; The Last Man on Earth swells from piano ballad into something epic – but the songs are strong enough to support it, better written than anything on Wolf Alice’s previous albums. Never hollow, the choruses soar, as on Delicious Things and How Can I Make It OK?; the words are sharp and occasionally witty: “He’s had so many lovers / But he’s not pleasing anyone,” Rowsell sings on the narcotic Feeling Myself.

Even the acoustic, ostensibly lightweight Safe from Heartbreak (If You Never Fall in Love) packs an Abba-esque lilt to its melody and harmonised vocals. Despite the litany of late-20s worries in the lyrics – friendships floundering as priorities shift (The Beach); the continued allure of hedonism battling the sneaking suspicion it’s not providing the escape it once did (Delicious Things); the desire to keep romantic relationships going despite their evident failings (“I take you back, I know it seems surprising,” shrugs Lipstick on the Glass) – Rowsell’s vocals feel assured, confidently shifting from whispered intimacy to full-throated, arena-rousing, yowling anger, to cut-glass iciness.

Without wishing to heap on unreasonable expectations, it has the distinct tang of an album that could be huge. There’s something undeniable about it, the beguiling sound of a band doing what they do exceptionally well, so that even the most devoted naysayer might be forced to understand its success. The kind of swagger you hear in the lyrics of Smile – and indeed throughout Blue Weekend – seems more understandable than ever.

This week Alexis listened to

Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram: 662


The award-laden 22-year-old blues prodigy previews his forthcoming second album: raw, funky, thrillingly rocking.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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