The 50 best albums of 2021, No 2: Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend

The London four-piece emerged from lockdown with a soaring triumph of pop rock, brimming with elegantly polished songwriting and confident ambition

Wolf Alice’s third album could easily have been a disaster. They made it with Markus Dravs, the go-to producer for going big (Arcade Fire, Coldplay, Florence + the Machine). It’s a move that can fit uncomfortably for anyone not born in Bono’s image, as the low-key London four-piece clearly aren’t. Then the pandemic hit. Stuck in Dravs’ studio in Brussels, they meticulously refined the album, risking sucking the life from it. Somehow they skirted both pitfalls: Blue Weekend is Wolf Alice’s biggest and most immediately satisfying album – cresting shoegaze, woozy classic rock, inventive acoustic songwriting cohered by melodies that aren’t just sticky, but frequently moving. It’s also one that’s seldom as straightforward as it seems, deriving its greatest potency from Ellie Rowsell’s subtly layered songwriting.

She has said that Blue Weekend is her least autobiographical album: whatever the inspiration, it tells a convincingly lived-in story of searching in dark places for answers to some indefinable question; of self-sabotage becoming a logical response to having your worst suspicions confirmed. Rowsell’s lyrics have never been stronger, telling of a breakup with friends (brooding opener The Beach), a litany of creeps, misogynists and a cheating lover: “I take you back / Yeah, I know it seems surprising,” she thunders on Lipstick on the Glass with a measure of ecstatic control, as if mirroring her prideful composure.

Untethered, her narrator swerves knowingly into nihilism. It’s here that Wolf Alice come into their own as adept musical shapeshifters, using their broad influences to explore the extremes a person might reach for in the throes of alienation: the self-destruction and desolation; the flare-ups of defiance and self-doubt. “Safe from heartbreak if you never fall in love,” Rowsell sings conclusively over a song of the same name, her drawbridge-up stance contrasting sweetly pastoral guitar and innocent in-the-round harmonies.

Similarly, at first pass, the woozy Delicious Things comes off as a classic fantasy of a wide-eyed newcomer seduced by life in Los Angeles. But Rowsell is well aware that “the vibes are kinda wrong” and that the man whose bed she’s in is “here for one thing”. Nevertheless, she sings, paradoxically, of feeling “alive, like Marilyn Monroe”, and the dreamy song billows skywards like the ill-fated bombshell’s skirts, a blissed-out wall of guitar steadily charring. Maybe certain annihilation is the fantasy, though some self-preservationist instinct kicks in: “Hey, is mum there?” Rowsell sings in a small voice at the end. “It’s just me / I felt like calling.”

There are more headstrong forays into the abyss. The squalling, stadium-ready Smile is a personal rebuke to Rowsell’s critics. Through a jutted jaw, she reclaims attributes that some might perceive as weaknesses – caution, sensitivity, rage – but the song’s crowning moment finds her at the bar amid her fellow “lost souls”, drinking to fake that superhuman feeling. The confidence is conditional; as is the relief on Play the Greatest Hits, a deliriously fun, campy rager about the groundhog day of narcotic nights out, repeated to keep real life at bay. “It isn’t loud enough,” she screams, furiously trying to sate some primal need.

Blue Weekend was released with Rowsell, Joff Oddie, Theo Ellis and Joel Amey all on the cusp of 30 – a time when youth’s reckless momentum slows and you’re forced to puzzle over what’s next, or at least to start being more honest with yourself. The album’s turning point, How Can I Make It OK?, plays out like an attempt at consolation, laced with their own doubts at being able to offer it: “How do we sell you the world?” Rowsell sings expansively. But they clearly understood the assignment: the song swells to a euphoric, girl-group-indebted sandstorm of a chorus that’s stirring to the point of confrontation. Similarly tender, but more barbed, is the gorgeous The Last Man on Earth, which wields opiate psychedelia a la Bowie or Floyd to slyly mock a blinkered character awaiting divine intervention instead of sorting their own life out. The music carries you off like a dream, but Rowsell’s lyrics are resolutely grounded.

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There is a powerful magnetism between the scale of these songs and the detailed empathy and frustrations they contain. But Wolf Alice also trust when to pull back. Penultimate song No Hard Feelings is the inevitable, hard breakup moment, the defenceless conclusion to the earlier heartache. “It’s not hard to remember when it was tough to hear your name,” Rowsell sings gracefully, to just softly thrummed guitar and twinkling ambience: “Crying in the bathtub to Love Is a Losing Game.” This ending is a beginning, she knows, an idea threaded into closer The Beach II, a sweet dirge that marks the reconciliation of that broken friendship: “The tide comes in as it must go out.”

These are grand gestures wielded elegantly, and they make Blue Weekend a complete, moving piece of work. In a sense, it’s a record that feels very familiar – a big, confident pop-rock album – but then you remember what an anomaly those are these days, when the form is so diminished as to have been almost abandoned. Few are bemoaning its demise, but there’s an undeniable pleasure in finding one adventurous, ambitious and human enough to remind you why they used to be so essential.