If a good pop chorus hits like a slap around the face, Oh Wonder’s debut was akin to a hand laid gently on top of the head. Perhaps braiding your hair. With boy-girl unison vocals and gently surging melodies from Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West, it was prime revision playlist fodder.
Two years on, the follow up's lead single and title track “Ultralife” serves as a manifesto for what the band are now trying to achieve: the same friendly pop with a new technicolour intensity. Maximalism looks good on them. The chorus is a joyous mass of jig-like strings and percussion. Second single "Lifetimes" is about climate change, and if the Paris Agreement ever required a theme tune, it could do a lot worse than this slick pop cut. The duo have a newfound knack for hooky phrases: like “Ultralife”'s "take a look at me now", the "doin' it right / doin' it right" refrain of “Lifetimes” is sharp and breezy. This sonic turnaround is especially impressive given that Vander Gucht and West have pulled it off entirely alone, shaping and producing the album around the TFL bus timetable in their home studio.
What’s inescapable, though, is Vander Gucht’s voice, which could make a Tarantino script sound like a children's story. This often works in her favour, as demonstrated by the perkily delivered “do you hate your life?” in the midst of a characteristic lyrical rush on “High on Humans”. But the band’s debut relied on flourishes like the razor-sharp strings of “Drive” and rich synths of “Without You” to fend off tweeness and still didn’t always manage it. Ultralife’s ballads, namely “My Friends”, “Bigger Than Love” and “Slip Away” (which shamelessly apes Ed Sheeran’s muh-muh-my), fall on the saccharine side of heartfelt. The album could easily lose these – it boasts far more interesting hallmarks of authenticity, like the line in “Lifetimes” where West calls Trump “toupee queen”, or the police siren that opens “Solo”. That song is the best on the album precisely because of its harsher sound, with vocal distortion and spaced-out twang building steadily into something intricate and evocative.
Overall, more is definitively more when it comes to Oh Wonder. While they aren’t designed to make pop bangers, they clearly have an ear for the kind of instrumentation and production tricks that enable them to cut to the feeling much faster than naked piano. Let’s hope the future holds a bit more exuberance and a bit less niceness.