Album Review: Oh Wonder — Ultralife
Oh Wonder came back strong this summer with their sophomore album. The British duo, comprised of Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West, have released twelve new tracks that comprise Ultralife. Their debut album — 2015’s Oh Wonder — garnered an 8/10 from The Typewriter. Let’s see how the sequel compares.
1. “Solo” — 8/10
The first track off of Ultralife discusses the chaos that surrounds us and the need to escape — to go solo. The track has a lovely beat, and I really enjoyed the chorus — particularly the crescendo halfway through, as Vander Gucht and West sing in unison, “I’m breathing in and I’m breathing out.” While this track didn’t blow me away, it’s a solid opener.
2. “Ultralife” — 10/10
This track was wisely dubbed the first single, since it’s the best on the album. In less than three seconds this track has you hooked. The drum sample at 0:10 is genius, the chorus is incredibly catchy, the electronic arpeggios accenting the chorus are perfection and somehow avoid sounding messy. Should I continue? The pause at 1:05 is brilliant, the lyrics are stunning, the alliteration on “I’ve got so much soul inside my bones,” is so delicious. Just go listen to this beautiful, beautiful song.
3. “Lifetimes” — 8/10
On “Lifetimes,” Oh Wonder makes the bold choice, as too few artists do these days, to abandon the typical verse-chorus format. Instead, they hit us with the chorus from the get-go and throw caution to the wind. It is a risk that absolutely pays off — this poppy, edgy love song is a gem. The pre-chorus is especially attention-grabbing, as West and Vander Gucht make the uncharacteristic decision to split up, leaving West singing alone and nicely changing up the sound.
4. “High on Humans” — 9/10
This track begins with an unusual intro, that actually becomes a motif — computer-generated voices are spliced together to say, “I’m getting high, getting high, getting high on humans.” This quirky introduction perfectly ushers us into this quirky song, which perhaps proves an anthem for us extroverts out there. I so appreciate that Oh Wonder has described, and celebrated, the rush that can come from interacting with our fellow homo sapiens. Lyrics and sentiments aside, the instrumentation is clever and catchy with lovely melodies to carry things along.
5. “All About You” — 8/10
Oh Wonder wields biting lyrics to decry a greedy, arrogant acquaintance, singing, “You’re counting green at night / but blessings you will never find / You only seek to undermine.” This enjoyable jazzy diss track is punctuated by the particularly dark bridge, as the duo concludes, “Where is your heart? Where is your truth?” Shots fired indeed.
6. “Heavy” — 8/10
I’m a sucker for a love song, and this seductive jam delivers. The augmented and 7th chords used on the chorus are a lovely, unexpected touch, and the piano accent at 1:14 is stunning.
7. “Bigger Than Love” — 8/10
This lovely track describes a powerful relationship and a love that is “bigger than love,” but also perhaps comments on the detriments of such a love. “All my days are ready to be hopeless at the start,” Vander Gucht and West sing on the bridge, interestingly nuancing this celebration of love and implying that perhaps once such a love has been found, a sense of wonder and excitement fades. With beautiful melodies and nice instrumentation, this track is a solid one that will make you think.
8. “Heart Strings” — 9/10
Oh Wonder changes it up on this track, adopting a Lily Allen-esque pop sound. However, they make their own mark and keep us guessing with the incredibly clever and warm chorus — the chords are stunning, and never go where I expect them to. This track, about someone aching to escape a lonely love, is a surprisingly fun listen and will keep your feet tapping.
9. “Slip Away” — 7/10
Vander Gucht reportedly stated that this track is about those scenes in the movies, “when people get into bed, and then like one of them turns their back on the other one but they’re both awake?” While I can’t find any interviews backing up this claim, it certainly seems accurate — it’s a quiet, melancholy track. The bass accent at 1:22 is a lovely touch, and the simple lyrics are poignant.
10. “Overgrown” — 9/10
This song offers support, and also discusses the difficulty of knowing how to help. “Did I, did I, did I do you wrong? / Did I, did I, did I do you right?” Oh Wonder asks. However, I think these lyrics of support are perfect: “And in the middle of the night when you’re on your own, / I’m chasing down light in the indigo. / It’s just the way you are when you’re overgrown.” I don’t know why, but these visuals really speak to me — somehow describing someone facing a period of hardship or turmoil as “overgrown” seems perfect.
11. “My Friends” — 8/10
While “Overgrown” offers support, “My Friends” is a song of seeking support. This track nicely crescendos throughout the track, slowly transitioning from a melancholy, meditative song into one of hope and promise. The piano instrumentation is impeccable, and the beautiful melodies that join it just make it that much better.
12. “Waste” — 7/10
Surprisingly, Oh Wonder saved my least favorite for last. This song about post-relationship loneliness is nice, but doesn’t build to the climax I was waiting for. The track builds to a conclusion, starting around 3:11, but when we finally hit the peak at 4:08 and I expect intense percussion and epic harmonies to close it out, the track ends. Thus while an enjoyable listen, this track left me wanting more. Perhaps they’ve cleverly plotted to keep me waiting for their third album, and in this case, it has indeed worked.
Oh Wonder took it up a notch on this album, and in doing so garnered an extra half point this time around. “Ultralife” is by far my favorite on this album, but there was nary a sour note. Each track is thoughtfully written, carefully planned, and nicely executed. I do indeed look forward to hearing what comes next from Oh Wonder after “Waste” has left me looking for more.
You can learn more about Oh Wonder here, and you can find their music on iTunes or Spotify. Like what you’ve heard? Follow The Typewriter’s ArtMag on Spotify! Just search for thetypewriter_artmag.