By the time Wolf Alice released their debut album in 2015, the burden on Brit-rock to define epochs had all but disappeared. Even among the genre’s loyalists, whose last project had been the disastrous Viva Brother, little appetite remained for a generational voice to swoop in and erect totems to their pined-for monoculture. With revolutionary pressures lifted, the gates (and charts) opened for Wolf Alice, a more benevolent and satisfying breed. Their debut My Love Is Cool descended from the Britpop-Libertines-Arctic Monkeys lineage, but it was introspective and, in its most unorthodox moments, spiritually involving. Accusations of a ’90s throwback weren’t unfounded. But rather than a straight lift, the north London group ransacked the era’s spirit—brattiness juxtaposed against morbid obsessions—while musically patching together grunge lassitude, shoegaze magnitude, and rock’n’roll attitude.
The similarly sprawling follow-up, Visions of a Life, is not full of aesthetic surprises, either. It subscribes to a necessary conception of rock as the holy site where dead metaphors and teen clichés can spring magically back to life. It’s populated by dreamers and deceivers, dimwitted bullshitters and their fed-up friends. It’s an album about anxiety and freefall, and about death, both of one’s own hypothetical death and the literal death of others.
Frontwoman Ellie Rowsell’s mortal preoccupations are, for the most part, more melancholic than haunting. Wolf Alice sound best when anchored in shoegaze, the kind that suggests human forms dissolving into celestial matter. Recorded in L.A. with producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen—whose work on Paramore’s After Laughter and M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming looms large—Visions of a Life is an expansive trip. Devoutly 4/4 and unsyncopated, it nonetheless carves out raucous passages in which to burst open. The brilliant “Planet Hunter” drifts in reverie before whirling into conflict. “St. Purple and Green” revitalizes their trademark grunge-folk hybrid, its mantra-like “one step after the other” climax evoking an ascent to the astral plane. And the title track, an epic three-parter, swirls up an abyss-gazing thrash before closing the album, naturally, on a mournful utterance of the word “dead.”
After My Love Is Cool, Wolf Alice starred in On the Road, Michael Winterbottom’s pseudo-documentary about a rock band—Wolf Alice—whose dull tour routine backdrops a fictional romance. “Suddenly I’m acting as myself, which makes you feel very self-conscious,” Rowsell has said of the experience. Her lyrics suggest the feeling isn’t entirely unfamiliar: Visions of a Life laments the characters we play in life and the psychic toll, particularly on women, of keeping up appearances. “Yuk Foo” petulantly skewers a mystery antagonist, affording him no personality, only a barrage of expletives: “I want to fuck all of the people I meet,” Rowsell spits. “’Cause you bore me/You bore me to death.”
While her writing subsists on observation, Rowsell’s scenes are less interesting than the inscapes bubbling underneath. Now 25, she is a fairly young songwriter, but not quite as young as her characters, who do not always know how to handle themselves. To occupy their thoughts, she slips into her speaking voice, whispers wordy internal monologues, over-divulging, withdrawing into generalities, plunging back into the messy entanglements of it all. On downtempo synthpop anthem “Don’t Delete the Kisses,” she both mocks and romanticizes young-adult drift. “I’m like a teenage girl,” she sing-speaks as the protagonist. “I might as well write all over my notebook that you ‘rock my world.’” It seems a strange thing, grasping to qualify the shallow feelings of a character you created, whose thoughts it is your responsibility to populate. But clichéd romance, the song argues, is tedious and shallow only until it comes for you. Then, it’s electrifyingly real.
Cliché is powerful when it identifies the profundity in common feelings, and it’s a particularly effective tool in loud, cathartic rock music. When we are young and precarious, to shut the door on sentimentality just means locking it in our bedrooms, where it’s liable to grow tentacles and start strangling people. You can feel it in “Formidable Cool,” a teen fable whose hapless lead is caught lusting after an unrepentant playboy. (When we’re introduced, he has his “hand in somebody’s knickers” at the social club.) In describing his allure, Rowsell sneaks in a caution against the perils of rock orthodoxy. “Believe in the chorus,” she teases, “Believe in love.” Taking her word, the protagonist bundles into a hasty sexual encounter with him, and is humiliated; Rowsell, an unsympathetic narrator, mercilessly taunts her for her naivety: “If you knew it was all an act/Then what are you crying for?” The moral is: watch who you mythologize. Being Brit-rock’s most tolerable flag-bearer in years, Wolf Alice are uniquely qualified to dispense it.