Monday, October 11, 2021

The Worse The Trauma, The Better The Art? Oh Wonder Release Their Latest Album ‘22 Break'

A fresh perspective for this talented married duo, Oh Wonder have just released a new concept album. ‘22 Break’ joins a few select albums written and recorded by duos during their break-up. 

However, Anthony West and Josephine Vander Gucht take this concept one step further, releasing their fourth studio album alongside a single, beautifully constructed 40-minute short film. Directed by Thomas James, it is this artistic, black and white addition, which brings the album to life in a beautifully dark way. 

Spoken-word link pieces provide important context and support the album’s fluency, further demonstrating the duo’s artistic prowess.  

Essentially the soundtrack to this film, ‘22 Break’ unveils what has previously been quite a private romantic relationship between the pair. During the pandemic, Oh Wonder explored their relationship issues and this unexpectedly led to the creation of a suite of break-up inspired musical reflections. Ranging from confession to hope, this record is perhaps the duo’s most heartbreakingly honest album to date and successfully navigates the fine balance between cliché and more relatable lyrical content.  

‘Baby’ draws the listener in and provides a perfect intimate opening to the album, beautifully capturing Josephine’s delicate vocals and hushed tones. While not undemanding, this tune is hauntingly atmospheric, displaying her raspy voice with such breathy intensity that her pain in her delivery is audible, almost tangible, expressing feelings of failure. Hopeful electronic flickers and sustained hanging notes carefully construct a sensitive, haunting and distinctive soundworld, allowing the song to reach new emotional depths. The simple nature of this track allows listeners room to reflect and fully appreciate the astonishingly raw, intimate nature of this opener. 


During the accompanying film, Josephine sets up the next track ‘Down’ perfectly, saying “I am just desperately trying to retrieve the light”, expertly capturing her struggle and inability to cope which is expressed in the piece. 


‘Down' and ‘22 Break’ are in stark contrast to 'Baby’ musically. Both present an interesting juxtaposition between upbeat instrumentation and heart-breaking lyrics. The lyrics in ‘22 Break’ acknowledge that they are both responsible for the pain experienced during their break-up (“it takes 22 break a heart”), while the upbeat nature of the music suggests a hopeful resolution for the relationship, which the film reinforces. This track is a powerful representation of heartbreak, with stunning sax interludes providing nostalgic jazz vibes. Ethereal electronics flutes, distorted vocal samples and sampled strings all appear out of the rhythmic section that underpins the piece. These no doubt add to the intensity of this track. With interesting harmonies and instrumental embellishments, it is a production masterpiece with musical ingenuity. 


‘Don’t Let The Neighbourhood Hear’ conveys feelings of inadequacy (“Am I not good enough?”). The nostalgic vibe in the track ‘22 Break’ continues here, with increasing use of jazzy saxophone riffs and interjections over flickering electronic samples, providing a more mellow sound than before. The musical growth of Oh Wonder here becomes evident, with less use of continuous octave vocal doubling than in previous albums.  


‘Rollercoaster Baby’ is another up-beat tune set against lyrics of anguish (“oh my God, oh, I just can’t face it”). It drives towards the second chorus, where rhythmic layering, alteration and syncopation provide more intrigue than the other tracks – delivering a groove like no other. More upbeat still, ‘Love Me Now’ throws us back to the previous ‘bangers’ released by the duo.   


‘Kicking The Doors Down’ is a significant contrast to the previous track ‘You>Me’ in terms of feeling. The reflective nature of the track is provided by the focus on the lyrics, which convey an honest representation of their journey towards a hopeful resolution. Aptly titled, this song perhaps signifies the removal of emotional barriers, which are preventing their continuing relationship.  


The final track, ‘Twenty Fourteen’, immediately captures the attention of the listener. The jazzy introduction perfectly depicts the lyrics “opposites attract”, with opposite articulation and note lengths used by the saxophone pair, eventually merging into a final sustained chord left to ring out. Unrelenting saxophone and piano repetition gives a sense of continuous motion and, mixed with synth-pop sounds and distorted vocal samples, provides listeners with an opportunity to escape reality. The sudden propulsion towards a release throughout the track creates a beautiful lilting quality, which works well with the additional jazz and production techniques to create intrigue.   


Oh Wonder’s new album ‘22 Break’ displays the duo’s growth and signifies a new beginning for the artistic couple, occasionally reminiscent of tracks by both The 1975 and Bon Iver. Beating the odds, Oh Wonder have created some of their best work during their lowest moments.  


Combining their musical creativity and artistic flair with a newly found interest in production techniques and interesting harmonies - no longer the monotonous octave doubling that has previously been associated with the duo - they have developed a fresh perspective and it is clear, from their latest album, that it will be a success.  


Flora Davison  


Image: ‘22 Break’ Official Album Cover  

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