When Wolf Alice released “Yuk Foo”, the first promotional single from their second full-length, Visions of a Life, it wasn’t clear if this was a new Wolf Alice, but it was definitely a louder Wolf Alice. Beyond the flippant inversion of the title, “Yuk Foo” turned singer Ellie Rowsell loose, cooing her way through the verses and shouting her way through the chorus. Abrasive by design, the song’s most repeated lyric, “I don’t give a shit,” could well substitute as a thesis statement for a band in search of itself on its sophomore record.
This ethos can surely be freeing, but, for the many virtues involved in not giving a shit, there are as many pitfalls. Visions of a Life suffers from all the bildungsroman challenges of a band stuck between stations without any of the dangerous, productive energy of creative adolescence. Does a band that really doesn’t give a shit name their lead single, “Yuk Foo”, instead of its vulgar, right-side-out brother? For someone who doesn’t give a shit, they seem to spend a lot of time giving a shit. Like much of the rest of Visions of a Life, the project feels burdened, not free, and noise is not a replacement for substance.
All is not lost on songs like “Delete the Kisses”, where Rowsell meets a delightful arrangement near the top of the room, screaming, “You and me were meant to be.” It’s a line nearly as satisfying as, “Are you wild like me?” from their first big single, “Bros”. Repackaging the best parts of ’90s mainstream alternative with a 21st century gloss endeared the band to many on their satisfying debut, My Love Is Cool. The band’s best moments feel like anachronisms pulled from the soundtrack for the 1996 movie Fear — Mark Wahlberg and Reese Witherspoon crashing over the top of a roller coaster into infinity. The sweeping “Planet Hunter” does this romantic work well, moving from a sparse guitar arrangement to a crushing, shoegaze wall of sound. “Heavenward”, the album’s lead track, similarly pursues the ethereal guitars in a loud-quiet-loud formation.
But then there’s trying schlock like “Beautifully Unconventional”, which, you won’t believe this, tells the story of a beautifully unconventional girl, in this case, Winona Ryder’s character from Heathers. “Beautifully Unconventional” is to alternative rock what Zooey Deschanel is to DIY culture. The chorus is a nearly shot-for-shot recreation of Tenacious D’s “Tribute”, only here Rowsell wails: “She seems to be from the best place in the world/ Must be the best place in the world.” Jack Black would be calling his lawyers if there existed a world where RCA Records made money on this record. The best compliment about huge sections of Visions of a Life is that the drum mix is remarkable, and “Beautifully Unconventional” is no exception. There might not be a cleaner mix on a snare drum this year. The rest of the song, regretfully, appears in the mix, too.
For all its bombast, the best moments of Visions of a Life are the most vulnerable ones. “Sadboy” sounds little like what the band has done before, finding a finishing kick somewhere in the middle, and then slinking out over the span of four slow, buzzing minutes. It might find its closest approximation in “Your Love’s Whore” from My Love Is Cool, another of those moments where the band felt unapologetically unencumbered. “Sadboy” opens with a rumbling bass line, and Rowsell’s admonishment “You think too much.” This advice could easily apply to second records, too. Merely saying you “don’t give a shit” isn’t synonymous with any new creative freedom. Visions of a Life is often full, seeming to overflow. But the substance is lacking, resulting in a tiring trip through a band gamely trying not to merely cover itself. The worst reaction you might feel near the end of a front-to-back listen of the record is exhaustion. Perhaps the band feels the same way, stuck somewhere between being themselves and someone else, between not caring what anyone thinks and wanting to sell some albums. Like Visions of a Life, it’s both a lot and not enough.
Essential Tracks: “Don’t Delete the Kisses”, “Heavenward”