Oh Wonder – 22 Break
Creativity is a fickle thing. It’s not something you can just switch on and off on a whim, you can’t ask for inspiration and expect it to arrive promptly on a silver platter. It comes and goes as it pleases, and everyone who makes a living in a creative industry constantly has the quiet voice of fear in the back of their mind saying “what if it never comes back?”. But there are always things an artist can do to further sow the seeds of inspiration and encourage it to flourish; the main one of course being a desire to express oneself. While there’s nothing wrong with making something purely for the sake of making something, usually the most impactful art comes from a place of catharsis. Using art as an outlet for pent up emotions; as way of processing and giving voice to feelings that you may not yet fully understand.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, creativity is also often boosted by giving it constraints. Having a mission statement consisting solely of “make… something” just throws the net too wide and lacks purpose and direction. If instead you add certain boundaries – working in a particular style or medium, pertaining to a certain theme, telling a specific story, or changing some aspect of the creative process itself – it fires up that problem solving part of your brain. When done right that fire spreads. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and often one idea leads to another, and so in trying to just overcome an obstacle in the road ahead you can sometimes find yourself taking flight instead.
Oh Wonder certainly seem to work best when there’s some structure in place. For their stunning debut album the duo wrote, recorded and released a song a month, before bringing all the creations together into one surprisingly cohesive collection of exemplary electropop. In the years since however, none of their releases have had quite the same spark. Without a structure to build around the ideas just didn’t feel forthcoming. For their latest release the duo started with one deeply compelling framework, and followed the creative vein it uncovered deep into the unknown. Inspired by a rough patch in the pair’s relationship, 22 Break tells the story of break-up as it develops. Starting by giving voice to doubts and fears, together processing feelings they never even realised they were feeling, sharing the bizarre and intimate process of writing a break-up record together, and ultimately finding their way back to each other through the storm. It’s an unusual approach, but anyone that’s ever heard Rumours can tell you how effective it can be to hear both sides of the heartbreak at once.
Here we have Oh Wonder’s most emotionally charged record to date. Lines like “I wish I’d done more to save us”, “Am I not good enough to be loved by you?” and “I loved you more than I loved myself” just burn with such sincerity. Over the course of these eleven tracks their openness allows you to follow every up and down of the relationship that they’ve chosen to share. You’d expect it to be a tough listen in the best sense of the term, but in fact the pair funnel their feelings through some of their biggest hooks and most earworm melodies in years. Not every track lands, ‘Down’ and ‘Love Me Now’ lean much too heavily on repetition, but the album definitely hits more often than it misses. The title track bounds effortlessly above an emphatic rhythm section, ‘Free’ floats across a dreamy weightless expanse, while the frenetic pre-chorus of ‘Rollercoaster Baby’ builds to a release of dazzling synths. Gorgeous closing track ‘Twenty Fourteen’ is awash with sophistication and elegance thanks to its smooth jazzy sax and bright piano tone reminiscent of Bruce Hornsby, while album highlight ‘Don’t Let The Neighbourhood Hear’ manages to pack everything that the duo excels at into one single track.
It feels like the band’s most cohesive work yet, not just thanks to the cathartic way it was written, but also down to the shift in musical style that acts as a unifying thread. While the duo have dabbled in samples, vocal effects and the like in the past, they’ve always felt like a distraction before. A thin veneer on filler tracks like fresh paint on an old house. Here however the band take it back to bare brick and build the electronic elements into the very nature of the songs. Paired with the light piano work and splashes of jazz it really stands out from their previous releases and feels like a refreshing new direction. That said, it’s worth addressing the elephant in the room that the album draws a lot of inspiration from Bon Iver’s 22, A Million. From the many stylistic cues it follows in its use of sax, sampling and vocal effects, to the similar artwork and even the shared love of the number twenty two, to say that Oh Wonder are wearing their influences on their sleeves here would be a massive understatement. While it’s not the most original of records, the pair do wear it well and put plenty of their own stamp on the style. 22 Break is the best that Oh Wonder have sounded since their debut and the new sound they’re flaunting is something I’d be keen to hear more of on their next record… although hopefully the couple don’t have to go through quite such an ordeal to get there next time around!