Wolf Alice performing at Heaven, 2014Paul Hudson

The ‘difficult second album’ is a well-worn cliché, based on a familiar tale. A youthful band strikes huge and unexpected success with their first album. They tour the world. They win awards. They build a large fanbase. Then they have to decompress, step away from the addictive highs of touring, and – burdened with high expectations – write another one.

This is the fate of Wolf Alice, led by front-woman Ellie Rowsell. Having posted their 2015 debut, My Love is Cool, at second in the charts, the band has returned with Visions of a Life.

Is it a ‘difficult second album’? For sure: it has all the artistic cohesiveness of a Jackson Pollock drip painting. Does that make it a bad album? Certainly not: because Wolf Alice like things that way.

“You’re on a musical mystery tour of the wacky and unexpected.”

In 2015, Wolf Alice delivered a musical mélange of 90s alternative rock, mixed with post-punk guitar thrashing, and pop-friendly catchy choruses. They have now added psychedelia and prog-rock to the list of influences. The result is calculated in its chaos.

The album’s opener (‘Heavenward’) sounds like a continuation of their debut, with dreamy melodies emerging out of a shoegaze wall of fuzzy feedback and dissonant guitars. But from that point onwards, you’re on a musical mystery tour of the wacky and unexpected.

Yuk Foo’ (the album’s lead single, second track and entry for the ‘Least Subtle Spoonerism Prize’) is an ear-bursting assault of heavy metal guitars and obscene lyrics. Rowsell brings the furore to an end by holding a screeched note on the word ‘shit’.

Stop No. 3 on the tour (‘Beautifully Unconventional’) switches to swagger-heavy syncopation and quick-smart lyrics. Stop 4 then whisks the listener away with romantic lyrics and titling synth-pop. Given this array of styles, it is ironic that Apple Music originally listed the album’s genre as ‘Unknown’.

“The album’s stylistic variance and lyrical content all point to a band wondering who they want to be.”

The range of lyrical subjects is also impressive in its variety, if not its emotional timbre. Over the 12 songs, you get: a graphic depiction of sexual abuse (‘Formidable Cool’); an internal monologue of a panic attack at 40,000 ft. (‘Sky Musings’); and an ode for departed friends (‘Heavenward’). Meanwhile, the general theme of ‘Sad Boy’ can be gleaned from the lines: “Who hurt you, Sad Boy?/ You look like you’re already dead.” You’d be forgiven for wondering whether anybody is especially happy in Wolf Alice’s world.

Reflective lyrics and 'shoegaze' inspiration: Wolf Alice's front-woman, Ellie Rowsell, performing at the JunctionPaul Hudson

However, the overriding theme is not so much misery as a sustained identity crisis. The pressures of the past two years have evidently weighed on Rowsell. In ‘Planet Hunter’, she murmurs: “I left my mind back in 2015.” Then, in ‘Sky Musings’, she narrates an episode of existential dread sparked by a plane flight: she is “on top of the world,/ 23 years old and you’re acting like it’s all over.” The album’s stylistic variance and lyrical content all point to a band wondering who they want to be.

Only in the final track – an eight-minute sprawl of howling guitars and krautrock-inspired feedback – does she find some apparent (if tautologous) resolution, declaring “my journey ends when my heart stops beating.”

Unfortunately, the album’s pick’n’mix nature means that it is also hit-and-miss. This is definitely a matter of musical taste, though. For example, a Guardian reviewer thought ‘Yuk Foo’ was “knowingly comical and absolutely ace”; I found it tasteless and virtually unlistenable. Despite this, I’m genuinely interested to know what provoked Rowsell to sing “I wanna f**k all the people I meet. F**k all my friends and all the people in the street.”

Wolf Alice are better judged by their hits, though: ‘Don’t Delete the Kisses’ is chief among them. Rowsell ditches the obscenities, swaps the guitars for dreamy synths, and whispers a heartfelt internal monologue of a lover holding back from a relationship, for fear of rejection – “What if it’s not meant for me? Love, love.”

Fortunately, her lovesick persona later changes her mind and announces: “You and me were meant to be in love.” It’s a hopelessly romantic song, begging to be played as the credits roll on in an American teen rom-com. But it’s beautiful and, arguably, the finest song of Wolf Alice’s career.

Can we have more like it, please?

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