Review of 'Ultralife by Oh Wonder:

Republic Records


Oh Wonder


Following up a successful debut can be daunting, especially when you want to evolve. London art-pop duo Oh Wonder make stellar use of harmonies and even bits of jazz on their sophomore release while also falling into a few stylistic trappings. Regardless of their missteps the record is a soothing and often dance-inducing record more often than not.

Starting things on a slower groove, “Solo” takes a bouncy harmonic melody and finds it racing along glimmering treble notes. As the chorus hits, vibrating and distorted synth lines crack apart as the shouts get higher and higher. Pushing a sense of beat before it even drops “Ultralife” carries an immediate drive making its quivering melodies a frantic compliment to their kick. The sense of enjoyment as palpable the further in the song you get as they clearly get carried away in their own song making it all the more fun to listen to.

Clearly taking a note or two from Elton John on the simple piano chug of “Lifetimes” the duo take turns playing with the vocals making for a more contrasting sound. While they work well playing opposite each other, their harmonic unison in each chorus brings a hefty sense of grandeur that carries the song just as well. Blasting some text-to-speech bots, “High On Humans” rolls on a pounding wash of piano and harmonies as the double vocals continue to play within each other interestingly. The real treat however is the grinding distortion on the synths that takes each chorus to its emotional peak excitingly.

Taking a much jazzier route, “All About You” gets into full breakup mood, as the duo play one side of a couple, as they critique their toxic other half (or perhaps more interestingly both parts simultaneously). The unique voicing for such a song, mixed with the dark bridge gives an aggressive pop-jazz sound that hits hard. “Heavy” pushes the band’s hook crafting to the max as they repeat lines deliciously, bounce synths in a killer retro sound, and lay down piano lines that would make 70s icons proud. Between the numerous instrumental and vocal riffs that permeate this track and the solid tone they colour it all with, it’s the album’s stand out.

“Bigger Than Love” is constantly building in its slow-burning push as the two deal with a pained love that’s worth it all the same. Although it feels about to break into a dance beat at the end, the lack of any shift or drop into a moment is brutally anti-climactic. With instantly infectious organ, “Heart Strings” entices listeners from the start before the sugary vocals take it even further. Almost too cheesy in its highs, the stellar instrument tones really make this a killer track.

“Slip Away” beats to life with a sombre keyboard line before vocals rasp in hopefully. As the beat kicks in an uplifting mood and chant, it also feels a little unfortunate that the duo don’t try to split and vary their vocals a little more as their instrumentation slowly becomes more interesting by comparison. Going a more standard piano pop direction, “Overgrown” uses waves of synth that build up to give a little more oomph to its sound.

While “My Friends” does feel a little sonically hollow compared to the rest of the album, the feeling they pull from an almost effect-less piano is impressive. The soaring strings and the ugly twists and turns they pull out of the piano are also a strong move in the right direction. “Waste” closes the album on an electric rush as each consonant hisses out and sounds get deeper and richer as they move to something surprising, experimental and surprisingly automated.

Words by Owen Maxwell