The Who, The Clash, and The Man Who Fell To Earth all at once.
Wolf Alice know exactly who they are. It’s what keeps their new record Visions of a Life from falling to pieces in our hands. Since forming in 2010, Wolf Alice have described themselves as “loud pop,” but that’s a cheeky understatement. The four-piece London outfit are a rock band who loves hooks, and more importantly, a British rock band who loves hooks. A band’s national identity inevitably informs the way we look at them, but that’s doubly true for British rock bands. It’s not that everyone’s living in the shadow of The Beatles so much as The Beatles and their successors ensured that British rock was going to be Its Own Thing for decades to come. Modern acts like Arctic Monkeys and Kasabian keep this narrative going, carving out their own space in music and their own criteria along with it.
So, Wolf Alice is a British rock band that makes “loud pop.” That still doesn’t account for the eclecticism on Visions of a Life. In the first three tracks alone, the album veers from psychedelic expanse to riotous punk to a chewy, cheerleadery glitter bomb. To use a Brit-rock measuring stick: it’s The Who, The Clash, and The Man Who Fell To Earth all at once.
Only it isn’t. Wolf Alice aren’t interested in merely referencing their predecessors with new words slapped on top—they’re way savvier than that. Lead singer Ellie Rowsell twists her voice into powerful, vulnerable, desperate shapes, but through it all, she oozes conviction. Even a ridiculous couplet like “I’d like to get to know you, I’d like to take you out/We’d go to the Hell Mary and afterwards make out” lands because she means it. The band’s utter lack of hesitancy, their assuredness that this Frankenstein approach to genre is working, helps them overcome a huge amount of inertia.
That doesn’t mean that everything coheres perfectly. The disparate songs manage to transition smoothly, and their cumulative effect is invigorating, but on a record this fragmented, some experiments are bound to work better than others. On the whole, the album’s back half is weaker. “Sadboy” is fun, opening with the vengeful taunt “Who hurt you, sad boy?/There’s a dark cloud above your head,” but unfocused instrumentation causes it to wear out its welcome at just over four minutes.
In general, the group does better the tighter they go. When things start to become more synth-heavy and spacier, the band’s identity falls out of focus. When they’re on, though, they’re on: the Grimes-cribbing “Don’t Delete These Kisses” and propulsive “Beautifully Unconventional” sound like Charly Bliss meets Beach House in the best possible way. Their Britishness also becomes one of their greatest assets in these upbeat numbers. Suddenly, the foot stomps of T. Rex and Iggy Pop come to mind to prop up the more riotous moments, like carefully-summoned ghosts called upon for context. It’s admirable how unswayed Wolf Alice are by the current wave of ‘80s fetishism: Visions of a Life is instead aggressively reverent of early-’00s indie rock and the supergroups of the 1960s.
Fittingly, Visions of a Life’s appeal can be summed up by its title track. A seven-minute epic that (rather unusually) closes the album, “Visions of a Life” takes everything that works about the 11 tracks before it and stitches these elements together in a funny, contemplative package. It’s not as aggressive as the album’s best moments, but the vigor is there. By the time the softer synths fade out, you may not feel like you’ve just digested a masterpiece. You will feel like you’ve digested a Wolf Alice album, though, and that’s not half bad.