London based twosome Oh Wonder gained international fame due to their unorthodox approach to releasing their debut album. Starting in September 2014, they would release one new song via their Soundcloud account every month for an entire year. Finally, in September 2015, all thirteen singles (plus two unheard songs) were released as one debut album. Oh Wonder’s self-produced sophomore album “Ultralife,” released this past July, is a stunning collection of the human experience that expands on the previous persona their debut created.
“Days past slowly, lost and low. You gave me hope and now there’s only blood running in my veins.” – “Ultralife”
The pair, Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West, started making music together in 2013 and have since produced two albums. Self-titled “Oh Wonder” and their newest work, “Ultralife,” have caught attention around the globe as the band is now embarking on a world tour. They seem to understand what works for a pop album while still maintaining a refreshing sense of effortlessness that cannot be imitated. The two harmonize their haunting vocals in a multi-dimensional mix of genres such as eclectic folk, electronic and pop, drawing comparisons from bands such as James Blake, LANY, and alt-J. The title track of their newest album, “Ultralife,” presents the band’s manifesto clearly – exploring the spectrum of human emotions through reflective lyrics with a new and improved technicolor texture to their sound. The hook takes the listener through the transition from bitterness and heartbreak to love and hope, “Days past slowly, lost and low. You gave me hope and now there’s only blood running in my veins.”
Both members were veterans in the music industry before collaborating to create Oh Wonder, with over a decade of experience between them. Doe-eyed Vander Gucht was a solo artist who went by the alias “LAYLA”, while West was a musician in bands Tonight is Goodbye, Futures, and We The Wild. West’s previous bands were still alternative, but with a much stronger rock streak than his current music provides. With her debut EP, “Yellow Circles,” LAYLA showed the independent strength behind her voice. Although together Oh Wonder complement each other’s musical talents, LAYLA unarguably has the potential to be an alt-pop star on her own. On LAYLA’s single “Oh My Love,” listeners can hear the ‘birth’ of Oh Wonder, when on verse two of the track Anthony West joins his future musical partner for the remainder of the song. The pair’s voices merge effortlessly and create a dreamy soundtrack of cozy Sundays and creative sessions.
Comparing the two experimental albums that the duo has released, there’s a clear connection of hypnotic vocals and exposed lyrics. “Ultralife” then works to build on their bold energy with the title track, without losing the ethereal calmness that captivated fans from their first album. “Oh Wonder” touched on difficult topics of gambling addiction (“Dazzle”) and cancer (“White Blood”), while “Ultralife” adds the weight of the duo’s emotional growth they’ve experienced since their success. One of Oh Wonder’s finest talents is exploring daily life and dissecting the inevitable emotions that come with it.
“My Friends” is a reticent song that makes you ponder your connections with others as Vander Gucht and West’s voices are complemented by a few simple piano keys. Reminiscent of Birdy or Bon Iver, the lyrics are emotionally prolific as Vander Gucht breathes, “and I can’t forget it, all of the love, all of the love.” The album “Ultralife,” however, is regrettably anti-climactic as the pace drops off on the last two tracks, with the musicians opting to harmonize rather than continue their introspective lyrics.
“Like two radios, our frequency fading. Why can’t we start again, we are tessellating.” – “Heart Strings”
Despite gaining attention for their consistently uplifting harmonies, the pair’s euphoric sound occasionally contradicts itself on songs that boast dismal lyrics of heartbreak and isolation. Akin to Childish Gambino’s “Sober,” the track “Heart Strings” explains, “Like two radios, our frequency fading. Why can’t we start again, we are tessellating. I was so lonely in love, I guess I was never enough.” Songs like “Bigger Than Love,” “Slip Away,” and “Waste” are even more melancholy. This sullen tone is explored gingerly, with varied sounds and instruments that allow the album as an entirety to be significantly more multi-faceted.
This emotional discrepancy works for Oh Wonder, as their songs seamlessly meld honest lyrics with soft instrumentation. Their songs depict experiences such as break-ups, being homesick, and going to parties, but they tell these stories through the emotions we face.
Appreciating the intimate emotion behind Oh Wonder’s lyrics is vital to understanding the nuances of their songs. The pair continuously produces songs with meanings deeper than just catchy choruses and pop-y repetition. Their lyrics aim to explore the many shades of human emotion and at the very core, ask their listeners what it means to be human.