A few million years ago, when dinosaurs ruled the earth and only people without a girlfriend/boyfriend were still buying vinyl, there was an idea known as the ‘Difficult Third Album’.
This basically said that most first records were made up of old songs whilst everything on the second was trying to get as far away as possible from the first. So the theory goes it usually meant that writing the next involved starting from scratch.
This is 2021 right, though, and that’s just a cliché; except for Wolf Alice, it was true. To now, the quartet had arguably punched way above their weight with their first two releases – My Love Is Cool and Visions Of A Life – each critically applauded and commercially successful, with the latter earning them 2018’s Mercury Prize.
Predictable years on the road followed, but when live performance suddenly became something that only used to happen, the artificial jolt left singer Ellie Rowsell facing an existential crisis: permanently looking over the heads of a festival crowd to the horizon had left her empty of new ideas.
Or so she thought. As the band – Rowsell, guitarist Joff Oddie, drummer Joel Amey and bassist Theo Elli – decamped to sessions in a west country Airbnb, they discovered that, even if only fragmental, they had the makings of something which would push them into places where there wasn’t a net.
To achieve it required that some of the old conventions were ditched. The subject of relationships had been deliberately avoided on My Love Is Cool, but for Blue Weekend no such rule applied.
Working with Coldplay/Arcade Fire producer Markus Dravs then squared their ambition with know-how, whilst iconography demanded Courtney Love was replaced by Debbie Harry.
The results border on spectacular. In a time when the idea of sitting through an entire album from beginning to end seems somehow ridiculous, Blue Weekend is near impossible to break away from.
Even at its most disarming, on the resigned ‘Safe From Heartbreak (if you never fall in love)’, the tone is near perfect, a pitch showing rightful confidence which makes juxtaposing to the bratty self-loathing thrash of Play The Greatest Hits seem natural.
Knowing you’re onto something can often mean the next stop is hubris, but the grungy tetch of Smile (‘I am what I am and I’m good at it/And you don’t like me well that isn’t fucking relevant’) briefly promises an overshoot that never comes.
Instead, The Last Man On Earth is a masterclass in manipulation through crescendo and comedown, one moment just hollowed out piano, the next soulful wave-topping, while No Hard Feelings and Lipstick On The Glass are subtle, delicate without being fragile, intimate without needing secrecy.
This is a record tapped directly into the consciousness of its writers. The corollary is a focus on themes about staying in mindful contact with yourself as well as others, and learning not to judge your own actions; these twin premises underpin the two best songs.
On the dreamlike Delicious Things, Rowsell is lucid enough to approve of seductive choices (‘I’m alive I feel like Marilyn Monroe/If you’re all popping pills you know I won’t say no’_, while the epic synth pop of Feeling Myself is about sex to satisfy only one ego.
People, colours, sounds, feelings; in being elemental, Ellie Rowsell has found both a lock and a key for it she probably never knew existed until the crowd noise left.
The biggest surprise though is not that Blue Weekend is Wolf Alice’s best album, but at how effortless they’ve made the total eclipse of all their previous work seem.