Oh Wonder is different from your average pop duo. London-based Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West started out their journey as artists through tasking themselves with writing and producing a new song every month for a year and posting it to YouTube, with these tracks becoming their eponymous debut of late 2015. Following the success of this – Oh Wonder is at nearly half a billion streams – they went touring, where an initial run of four dates sold out within a week and eventually became 162 shows in 14 months across 112 cities. Following an incredible feat for something which started out as a passion project, the intimate and affirming Ultralife is arriving to act as a debut proper.
Staying true to their self-producing roots, most of the tracks on Ultralife were recorded in the band’s own home studio. This becomes evident from ‘Solo,’ the very first track, where you can hear a bus going past in the background. As West said, “our studio is on a busy main road on the corner of two bus routes… whenever we’d start recording another bus would go by.” The result is an intimate and fun album which stays true to the band’s trademark pop-slash-indie sound, however this also sees some songs run the risk of becoming lost and makes the album feel quite samey.
The first half of Ultralife is really driven by the use of drums and bass, changing to piano and violin by the end of the album. Songs like ‘High On Humans’ and early singles ‘Lifetimes’ and ‘Ultralife’ function well as stand-alone tracks, whilst others like ‘Bigger Than Love’ fall flat if removed and played individually. The overall sound of the album is consistent which serves to make the listening experience enjoyable – you’re not wondering why some songs are on the album which, if you love Oh Wonder, makes the album worth a listen. The hypnotic dual vocals are evident in every track and compliment each other, with Vander Gucht often taking the melody and West supporting with harmonies. You can hear this in ‘Slip Away’ where their voices create a progressive and sensual song, emotionally pulling the listener with the vocals.
I feel very conflicted about Ultralife. On the one hand, it provides the regular listener of Oh Wonder with an album which completely reflects the sound of the duo and affirms it following on from their first album. However, it runs the risk of becoming forgettable to a new audience, with some of the tracks sounding too similar and merging together. One thing is for certain, however: their self-production breathes life into the tracks for a feeling which is often lost when artists follow the formula for the perfect pop song. The passion in the making of this album is present in the emotionally-driven lyrics, even if it does fall slightly short trying to make every song memorable.
Ultralife is released on July 14th via Island Records
An intimate and affirming album from the duo, but some songs do blend together and risk becoming forgettable.