Ascending the tastemaker ranks across the pond for half a decade before releasing their first LP, Wolf Alice managed to sustain a weaponized buzz longer than the entire careers of most press darlings. Whether a logy muse or daring marketer lay behind its extended gestation, their debut should’ve by rights been swan song, but My Love Is Cool justified the silliest hype as thrillingly-disjointed statement of intent that spelled the promise of something utterly new, however dated their musical reference points.
As impressively, the UK combo continued trending upwards well after that 2015 launch. They’ve kept up an endless tour schedule – even starring as supposed focal point of Michael Winterbottom’s mock-rockumentary On The Road – while accumulating a dozen new tunes for this ever-more-eagerly-awaited follow-up. Riddled with passion and panache, Visions Of A Life veers farther afield from the post-grunge pastures of their first collection without ever ebbing momentum. Why, then, does their second act so often sound like a band spinning its wheels?
Bowdlerized title aside, “Yuk Foo” arrived as a pitch-perfect single. Vocalist Ellie Roswell pitches her caustic kiss-off against serrated riff toward that bittersweet spot between Elastica’s furious hauteur and the batshit triumphalism of Icona Pop. It’s a spiky anthem built to shake terraces that serves as a worthy successor to their first album’s “Bros”. It’s also, not for nothing, thoroughly unrepresentative of an album otherwise torn between the jitters and terminal sluggishness.
Visions Of A Life is an album of moods, and the tonal and stylistic sea change between adjoining tunes would be far more jarring save for the anchoring presence of Roswell. The former coffeehouse folkie flits from girlish aside to infernal caterwaul in a heartbeat while always remaining center stage, and, since the quartet shifts idioms just as seamlessly, that facility for manufacturing both ends of the bipolar spectrum can’t help but highlight what often feels like an ingrained theatricality.
“Sky Musings” skitters along the hushed urgency of a “West End Girls ”-styled rhythmic breathiness. For better or worse, even limning frontwoman-on-the-verge mania, Roswell never lets one forget the bravura performance on display. This isn’t the inchoate frustration of a restless muse nor the nervous energy of dispossessed youth, and we’re a long, long way from teenage kicks
Likewise, the shoegaze (sorta, arguably) suffers from the same constraints. Atop the widescreen gloss of former Beck bassist/current Paramore producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, “Heavenward” and “Don’t Delete The Kisses” explore spectral textures with all the ethereal allure of their storied forebears, but the band never quite manages that same sense of adventure. There was an underlying danger somehow lost in Wolf Alice’s translation to stadium-sized ethereal tracks less druggy than well-medicated.
While clearly influenced by the high-minded doldrums and restive melancholia of Clinton-era Alternative Nation, Wolf Alice never really deserved to be lumped in with the ‘90s revivalists. Still, what format better suits their polished experimentation, enlightened ambition, and studious genre-auditing than ye olde College Rock? There’s no denying Visions Of A Life top marks for a sterling sophomore effort. All the same, though, isn’t it time they pick a major?