Ah, Oh Wonder. An accidental pair of popstars return as proper popstars this time, with the weight of a major label (Island) behind them to help launch their second release, Ultralife.
The album opens with a quiet siren (within range of their New York recording setup, though they laid down a lot of the album in South-East London). The outside FX is overtaken by a mellifluous synth line repeating a phrase over and over for 30 seconds, whereupon you hear the intertwined vocals from Josephine and Anthony singing in unison, an octave apart. They are doubling themselves as if solo, apt considering the song is called Solo. The song moves melodically and musically, with the perfect production heard on the first collection of songs. It takes the minimalist approach that is current in indie-minded pop and blows it up, beckoning you in rather than shutting you out. It’s also a good taster for what is to come.
The title track, one of the pop songs of the year, you know about: it’s a maxim to live by, as the band have said in interviews, and is a great way of describing being in love. The tabla-type drums that run through the song are inspired, and the song’s percussive thrust easily matches the best pop music of the last 50 years.
There is a musicality to this album that many pop albums lack. All About You skips along, while Lifetimes has some fine passages and some lush chords. Heavy contains synth lines of which Daft Punk and Steely Dan will approve.
Overgrown seems to point to a lot of Coldplay on the Oh Wonder stereo, with a musical underscore that lifts from Paradise, and a lyrical homage to Let Her Go by Passenger (‘high when you’re feeling low’). Slip Away, with scattershot drumming heard on Radiohead or Bjork albums, wants to build but gets stuck in a groove to mimic the lyrical content, ‘my my, how I tried’.
Heart Strings is a future single, flying out of the speakers with a surprise chord on the word of the title to ease stickability. Along with High On Humans it’s the most immediate track on Ultralife; that one starts with an electronic voice intoning the title, which proves the band have a sense of humour, a welcome trait when so many take themselves so damn seriously.
There’s more than just pop bangers on Ultralife. My Friends is the only track anywhere near five minutes (the others mainly stick to 3:30), and is evidence of Adele’s power on other acts. In a post-Adele world, Josephine can do orchestral pop impressively (she has knowledge of oboe, piano and violin). ‘It’s bigger than you, it’s bigger than me, it’s bigger than love,’ goes Bigger Than Love, which is rooted in a three-chord phrase on a grand piano and has a wicked chorus and builds slowly over four minutes.
The album is, to any sane man, almost perfect, While they’re not quite there yet, there’s certainly been a distinct evolution since their debut that avoids self-parody and make them a UK act to be reckoned with. Catch them live soon for the full Oh Wonderful effect.