Oh Wonder - Ultralife
by Elena Browning
Just in time for the peak summer months, Oh Wonder are back with their second full length album. The alt-pop duo, comprised of Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West, are arguably some of the best in their genre, blending upbeat electro-pop anthems, fresh synth-y beats, and heartfelt ruminations on love and life, into one summer-ready album. This second album certainly follows suit from their first – although this time around the pair have moved into a recording studio, whilst the first album was entirely home-produced – with the same genuine musical talent and passion for their craft coming through in every track.
Just as with their first album (the eponymous Oh Wonder), Ultralife intermingles slower, moodier numbers with more upbeat pop tracks which will no doubt grace many summer playlists. The album opens with the former, Solo. A short burst of the sounds and sirens of the busy streets of London and New York – the two cities in which the album was written and produced – gives the album that same urban edge which Vander Gucht and West inject into their classically trained musical capabilities. The backing track to the duo’s rich vocals relies heavily on electronic beats and sounds, making the humble strings of an acoustic guitar which feature throughout the chorus sound almost bittersweet.
In an entirely contrasting mood, title track Ultralife is an alt-pop anthem with a pumping, feel-good chorus which revels in the buzz of finding love, and the sense of belonging it brings with it. The song confronts the lows as well as the highs – with lyrics such as “Found me on the basement floor/ Back when I had lost it all”, Ultralife recognises two extremes of experiencing life. Inspired by a ride on the London Underground, this same exploration of human relationships continues into High On Humans. Sonically the track is very much electronically based, right down to the robotic voices which open the song, contrasting with the message which celebrates fleeting but meaningful human connections made with strangers in public places.
The album culminates in an entirely different mind-set to its opening track, almost as a testament to the effects of living your ‘ultralife’ with those who make you happy. In an Instagram video providing a short commentary on closing track Waste, Vander Gucht muses: “happiness is only real when shared, right?” This journey from Solo to Waste means that the album feels cohesive and purposeful. The album builds to its final crescendo in Waste, with its heartfelt mantra “What a waste to be so alone” repeated almost to breaking point, and then retracted to leave the listener with an understated but resolute finish to the sophomore release.
There are couple of moments where the album falls slightly short for me, however. Songs such as Heart Strings feel a little too forced perhaps. Oh Wonder excel at creating catchy hooks which stick around in your head long after the song finishes, but the repetition in this chorus instead verges on the irritating at times (although I do like the jaunty, staccato keys throughout, which remind me of Childish Gambino’s Sober.) Similarly, Overgrown feels a little too much like a filler track to pay it much attention. Grouping these few songs together means that the album somewhat loses its way towards the middle section, and they suffer between tracks which have already made their mark having been released a few weeks earlier.
Nevertheless, Ultralife explores the implications of human relationships in an overall stylish manner. It seems to me that this is a good album for those who already have a soft spot for Oh Wonder – it provides fans with strong material for summer, chilled, and revision playlists alike. And yet I’m slightly hesitant to assume it might get people hooked on them like their first album did for me. I’m hesitant, but I’m definitely hopeful – recently revealed to have entered at number 8 in the UK Albums Chart, I’ve got my fingers crossed for Oh Wonder and Ultralife.