Wolf Alice's Blue Weekend is a modern-day indie masterpiece
Why the London alternative rock band are in a league of their own after the release of their third album Blue Weekend, already one of 2021's best.
It was March 2015 and an excitable mob of Glaswegian Wolf Alice fans were making their mid-set pleasure known through the form of the semi-ironic, local chant, "here we, here we, here we f***ing go!".
Elevated above the crowd on the Oran Mor stage in Glasgow's West End, frontwoman Ellie Rowsell looked on with a mixture of disbelief and delight. Grinning from ear to ear, she thanked the thousand-strong audience, before nervously apologising that the next song on the setlist, 'Blush', was a slower, vibe killer. 3 minute into the song, the crowd found an excuse to start a moshpit anyway.
With such a reaction it was obvious that the band were truly onto bigger and better things. They'd only released a couple of EPs at this point, but all of a sudden that month they were being touted as the next big indie band, championed by the likes of NME and Zane Lowe on Radio 1.
I'd first heard of Wolf Alice a year earlier and their pulsating track 'Moaning Lisa Smile', leading to endless listens of their Blush and Creature Songs EPs. I then proceeded to tell everyone how big they were going to become. Though, in honesty, this was a prediction I'd made a thousand times for a thousand bands. It was only attending that Oran Mor gig where I realised that this wasn't just any band and my hyped claims might just come true.
Here we are six years later and the band have just released their third studio album, Blue Weekend. This is their most confident album yet, confirmation that they've reached new heights after two brilliant previous albums.
This album hasn't come out of the blue (no pun intended). Wolf Alice released their debut My Love is Cool in June 2015 and they haven't looked back since. It peaked at number 2 on the UK Official Albums Chart, winning them two NME Awards. They quickly became festival favourites for their brand of heavy, yet poppy alternative rock.
Visions of Life (released 22 September 2017), saw the band expand even further sonically, taking home the coveted 2018 Mercury Prize. The reason for the success was the quality and diversity of their rock sound.
Tracks ranged from punky and raw ('Yuk Foo'), polished indie-pop ('Beautifully Unconventional'), to heavenly shoegaze (opener 'Heavenward'). However, it was the sweet and dreamy 'Don't Delete the Kisses' that achieved the most acclaim, Ellie Rowsell's whispery vocals telling a tale of youthful lost romance.
Less than four years later, they're back with Blue Weekend, returning stronger than ever. Recorded in Brussels between February and March 2020, the new album is a masterpiece that furthers their claim as the best British band around.
The album opens with 'The Beach', strumming along patiently before Ellie's a dreamy chorus vocal of "let me off, let me in / let others battle / we don't need to battle and we both shall win". It may not have the shoegaze bliss of Vision of Life's 'Heavenward', but it's a delightful beginning that intrigues the listener to carry on.
Before long, 'Delicious Things' floats into play. It's another laid back, dreamy number with a stunning vocal performance from Ellie Rowsell. She describes being in Los Angeles and still pinching herself at the success of her band. Presented with the new temptations of the rockstar lifestyle, the character in the song is too shy and socially awkward to say no. She reveals: "I don't care, I'm in the Hollywood Hills / I'm no longer pulling pints, I'm no longer cashing tills / And I'm alive, I feel like Marilyn Monroe / If you're all poppin' pills, you know I won't say no".
When Wolf Alice released 'The Last Man on Earth' in February, I described it as "a beautiful track which is a gigantic departure from them!". From initially feeling underwhelmed, I kept an open mind, listened on and the track quickly became one of my favourites of the year.
It proved the progression of the band and took everyone by surprise, even featuring a Beatles-inspired 60s jam (because...why not?). You leave the track with the hairs on your neck firmly raised, completely encapsulated by Ellie's vocals (you'll notice a theme emerging...).
As they did four years earlier, their second single was a completely different vibe altogether. On 'Smile', which has a passing resemblance to Vision of Life's lead single 'Yuk Foo', we're back to vitriolic, hard-hitting alternative rock. The sentimentality is gone, the gears have changed and Ellie's at her unapologetic, snarling best: "I wear my feelings on my sleeve, I suggested it / it serves me better than to swallow in a sedative / I am what I am and I'm good at it / and you don't like me well that isn't f****** relevant".
In a press release, Ellie described the thinking behind the track:
"This is one of the songs we wrote thinking that we would play it live...I miss that feeling of singing on stage. It’s like screaming into a pillow or something — you can get away with being more nasty. There’s a whole other part of me missing.”
In a similar vein to 'Smile', 'Play the Greatest Hits' is another carefree, in-your-face alt-rock banger. It takes a break from the anxieties seen through Blue Weekend to describe a party lifestyle where the protagonist enjoys "the taste of someone's lips, their hands placed on my hips / swaying in the kitchen to all the greatest hits". It's amongst the most punchy on the record, Ellie's rock voice returning to reveal empty, party debauchery and escapism.
Third preview single 'No Hard Feelings' is one of the most emotionally raw songs Wolf Alice have written, rather taking a hopeful look at the end of a relationship. Ellie declares that "there's only so much sulking, that the heart can entertain". She's putting a brave face after the heartbreak had led her to "crying in the bathtub" to Amy Winehouse songs. It's a tender look at a subject explored throughout the record, Ellie approaching the heartbreak with maturity and positivity rather than sadness or bitterness.
On the night before the album's release, the band released 'How Can I Make It Ok?', a dreamy number full of anxiety and worry, sitting somewhere between Fleetwood Mac and Cocteau Twins in sound. It features a stunning performance from Ellie (again) and the looped "oh, oh, oh" vocals two-thirds just sound spine-tinglingly amazing. As the fourth taster of the new record, it had our appetites whetted and expectations through the roof.
Thankfully, Wolf Alice have delivered on these expectations to give us one of the most beautiful and dynamic albums of 2021. The range of the band's performances across Blue Weekend is seriously impressive.
You have the punk of 'Play the Greatest Hits' sitting effortlessly alongside the acoustic folk of 'Sale From Heartbreak (if you never fall in love)', the psychedelia of 'Feeling Myself' and eerie-dreaminess of tracks like 'Lipstick on the Glass'. It all comes to a close with the ethereal, shoegaze of 'The Beach II'; a perfect end to a near-perfect album.
In the run-up to the album's release, Ellie spoke about being bolder and more open in her lyricism and that certainly holds true through the vulnerability on offer. Similarly, it's her stunning vocal performances across the 40 minutes that leave a lasting impression, able to move from snarling to heavenly at the drop of a hat. She's backed up perfectly by the rest of the band (Joff Oddie, Theo Ellis and Joel Amey) who perfectly accompany her mood with punchy and emotionally textured performances.
The quality of the music, vocals and mood ensure there isn't a dull moment to be had. It's 11 tracks of masterful indie rock from a band that continue to progress album after album following their big breakthrough in the mid-2010s.
The London band are in their prime and we need to embrace them while they're in it.