For this week’s UK album chart battle we had two unlikely competitors: Shania Twain and English indie band Wolf Alice, fronted by Ellie Rowsell. It seems odd to think these two could become adversaries, the divide between them is so vast as to usually make such people invisible to each other. This wasn’t David vs Goliath or Blur vs Oasis this was more like someone’s mother versus the emo kids who stand at the side of the playground smoking.
The gauntlet was thrown down by Wolf Alice drummer Joel Amey, who recalled the horror of enduring line dancing classes as a child, where he was forced to listen to Man! I Feel Like A Woman over and over until he decided to wear black and scowl for the rest of his life. Posting this story on Facebook he implored the kids to buy his album and vanquish this leopard print demon in the name of real music.
It’s probably fair to say that Shania will have no idea whatsoever about this band and the campaign of hate that they started (which weirdly ended up with Jeremy Corbyn stepping forward to tweet support for Wolf Alice). No Shania wasn’t in this fight, she was like a queen in her castle asleep while her Stan army went out and attacked the neighbouring country.
It’s odd to think that a woman in her fifties would have such an amount of online fanatics, Beyoncé sure but Shania? Yet swarm they did, trolling Wolf Alice and their fans into submission. This was like the popular kids ganging up against people they would usually ignore, only because the band were close to taking away the prize of a number one album. Wolf Alice previously lost out when their debut album went to number two behind Florence and the Machine a few years back, but in that case the fans were too similar for there to be any real conflict.
This time the battle lines were more easily drawn: pop vs indie, autotune vs instruments, professional songwriting teams vs writing the songs yourself, old vs young.
So the lights dim, the crowd is quiet and the two disparate acts are here to slug it out for death or glory.
First up is Wolf Alice and their second album Visions of A Life. They open with a cacophony of noise, swirling and building until the vocals can be heard emerging through the haze. It recalls the quiet/loud mix of their previous album style, best described as shoegazy dream pop with a little bit of grunge. You can’t really make out the lyrics, but the music sounds good. Modern. Original.
Then follows the tuneless Yuk Foo with its incomprehensible shrieking and swearing. The Shania fans are covering their ears at this point but even some of the Wolf Alice fans (myself included) are perplexed by this cartoon version of Riot Grrl which appears to forget to convey any real sense of gut feeling.
Ellie Rowsell used her voice so well on Wolf Alice’s debut album but on Beautifully Unconventional she does this weird talking singing which does not work at all. The guitars are spiky enough but nothing stays with you or stands out. Don’t Delete The Kisses is a song about the perils of technology – the lyrics on this album are excellent but the songwriting is shoddy. There no real melody or hook to any of these songs. Planet Hunter is nicely forgettable. Sky Musings goes even further with the odd talking/singing thing as if she trying to rap (dear god, save us).
Formidable Cool has a bit of kick to it – the unhinged hysteria works here. Space & Time actually starts off sounding like it’s going to be a catchy indie pop song and almost gets there but just fails to land its punch. After the Zero Hour doesn’t go anywhere, it just floats around. The final track finishes with a grunge racket but it lacks the heart on the sleeve honesty of that genre of music.
After enduring this album I actually had to go back to listen to their debut to check I wasn’t crazy for thinking they were a good band. To call Visions of a Life a disappointment is a wild understatement. The first album had at least four catchy indie rock songs and some beautiful moments of blissed out pop. This has nothing. Some of the songs are pleasant enough and the lyrics are intriguing but you feel like this album is only going to lose them fans not make them a number one selling act.
Despite all that, overall you have to say it’s still a better album than Shania’s Now, which is a real mess from the start. As she steps out of the shadows after a long time away she seems uncertain of herself. The opening track starts with her singing Summer’s here, another beer, which should be a celebration but she sounds miserable. The song has a reggae feel which is just weird. I bet there’s no way anyone, other than the most ardent fan, could identify this singer as Shania Twain, such is the difference in her voice (she has suffered from health problems which seem to have affected her vocals). She’s swinging with her eyes closed, but you think her ears must’ve been shut too when someone pitched her this song.
The next song starts with a real instrument! Wait, even better, a country instrument! A banjo! This is more like it. I think even heard a violin but it was so buried it was hard to tell. Home Now could be a great song, given to another producer. It has one idea and repeats itself but the idea itself is fine, it’s the autotuned voice effects which ruin it.
On Light of my Life Shania sounds asleep, unlike her usual bubbly self. I think it’s supposed to be sultry. It’s not even a catchy song but the lyrics feel personal if nothing else. Poor Me also deals with her marital breakdown, shame the song sounds so muddled and messy.
By now I’ve started skipping the tracks before the end and there’s still more than ten tracks to go. This is a long album. Quantity does not mean quality. The vocal effects happen again on Who’s Gonna Be Your Girl. In my opinion the autotune makes the weakness in her voice more obvious, rather than masking it. Where Do You Think You’re Going and Roll Me On the River could have been sinister or interesting but they’re sung with zero emotion, as cold as the computer who made them.
Because of You is acoustic so sounds a little better but it’s not exactly groundbreaking stuff. It’s pretty simple songwriting, with forgettable lyrics. Solider is okay, slow and uninteresting but not offensive and probably the best thing here apart from Home Now.
Shania fans are kidding themselves if they say they like this album. That’s the problem with obsessive fandom – you can’t see the wood for the trees. Even if I didn’t like them I understood the appeal of You’re Still The One or Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under or That Don’t Impress Me Much. There’s nothing that fits in any of those three categories at all. The ballads aren’t well written or sung, there’s no country music, there’s no catchy pop hits. It’s somewhere in musical no man’s land. You kind of wish she’d gone to some of the big Nashville writers instead of Ed Sheeran’s cowriter, at least then we might have had a melody. For most of this album she just sounds like a reanimated zombie corpse who wishes they could just rest in peace.
It’s fair to say what I think is irrelevant to the outcome of this fight – it’s the audience who decide the victor. At the end of the chart battle both Shania and Wolf Alice are out on their feet. The referee steps forward and raises a hand. Shania wins on points. 764 copies ahead. Both acts shake hands and limp out the ring, licking their wounds.
Perhaps you could argue that Shania deserves her number one for old time’s sake. You have a feeling even she knows her days in the competitive ring are numbered. Better to stay over in the veteran’s circuit where you can fight with your back catalogue and give your fans the hits they really want. Wolf Alice will live to fight another day, you hope they train harder and bring back something stronger next time. They might be second place now but it does feel like they’ve been punching above their weight and without improvement they could free fall back into indie oblivion.
So, while it is pleasing to see two female fronted acts at the top of the charts, next time it would be nice if the quality of the music was more worthy of attention.