Wondrous
Ultralife

by nick dumont

Anthony West and Josephine Vander Gucht are entwined on a single wavelength as two voices transform into one.

Known as Oh Wonder, the duo only sings together. They don't offset each other with high and low notes or loud and soft pitches. Rather, they’re identical complements harmonizing to create a distinctive sound.

After listening long enough, you're lulled into hearing just one smooth, gorgeous voice.

Oh Wonder's eponymous electro pop debut was smooth and sweet, like strawberries and cream. The lyrical theme embodied, like their vocal style, togetherness. The album celebrates how much stronger and more enlivened you become when you're with someone you love.

And not just that, but how destructive you were before you found them. And how lost you feel without them. And how hopeless your life would seem if they left it.

The album leaves the most distinct impression that feeling alone is the worst thing that could happen in life.

So it’s jarring that in "Solo," the opening track of their sophomore album Ultralife, West and Vander Gucht crave independence and freedom, expressing a desperate desire to be alone:

Oh Wonder usually aims to provoke emotions, but "Solo" is their first song which permeates anxiety.

Imagine you're drowning at a crowded basement party, or scrambling to meet deadlines at a bustling office, or in West and Vander Gucht's lives, touring constantly and hurtling between unfamiliar cities and settings.

You wish you could silence the noise and simply disconnect.

But instead, you feel the claustrophobia.

"Can you feel yourself erasing?"

The anxiety.

"Now I'm breathing in and I'm breathing out
I'm breathing in and I'm breathing out"

The ensnarement.

"It's like treading on a wire laced with kerosene and fire
The night will soon expire as their bodies soon retire
Limbs entangled in kaleidoscopes of prima donna choirs"

No one's immune from this suffocating dread. Not the optimists, nor the wealthy, nor these two smiling musicians who dance and bounce around the stage.

It's simply part of the human experience. But that experience shouldn't be suffered alone. It's meant to be shared with friends, lovers and strangers alike. And in those connections, through commiseration or celebration, we find comfort and compassion.

As searing as melancholy can be, these human connections will always be felt deeper. Again, West and Vander Gucht seek to remind us to the strength of togetherness, albeit this time through the lens of empathy.

The title track, "Ultralife," captures the despondency from "Solo," but cures it with the duo's trademark belief in companionship and its ability to uplift us.

Tracks like these are what makes their sophomore album special. Despite the bright pop and dance offerings on this record, West and Vander Gucht are most compelling when they delve the depths of despair.

They touch on homesickness, growing apart in a relationship, depression and mental health. It's an honest and relatable portrait of the human condition, of our flaws and vulnerabilities.

The final song, "Waste," a sparse track floating on soft synth notes, complete's the album's circle. In "Solo," the duo wanted to be on their own. But the chorus of "Waste" shows they've learned that when life goes to shit, we need each other more than ever.

"What a waste, what a waste
What a waste to be so alone"

In October, West and Vander Gucht performed in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the Neighborhood Theatre, a thousand-person venue in an artsy neighborhood north of uptown.

There were hundreds of people, wrapped around three blocks, waiting for doors to open. This isn't exactly common – a few locals walking by stopped and asked the name of the band who drew the crowd.

After the opener Jaymes Young finished his set, the crowd packed the space in front of the stage and there was a low murmur of anticipation.

Then, a large sign spelling "OW" and eight light beams on its left and right sides sporadically flickered. Deafening shrieks and shouts pierced the air as West and Vander Gucht took the stage.

The opening bass knocks of "Dazzle" sounded – the first of a set of tracks which were reconstructed or extended for the live show, giving West an opportunity to riff on the guitar. He rocked back and forth from one leg to the other. Vander Gucht danced in place at her keyboard and lifted her arms in the air.

The performance was bursting with energy, but its most memorable moment was when it slowed down. As the rush of "High on Humans" faded, the band's bassist stepped back out of sight, and the drummer set down his sticks and closed his eyes.

The room fell to darkness, save for the dim glow of the "OW" letters. Then, one by one, the crowd took out their phones and lighters and waved them in the air as the duo performed "White Blood."

Vander Gucht revealed her voice was shot from the tour, making the song's lyrics feel like a plea to the audience.

"I'm ready to go, can't do it alone," she and West crooned. The audience made sure they wouldn't have to – they sang along, swayed together, and lit up the room.

It was moving to see the unity the duo sings about materialize in person. We were all strangers at the show, but for a few minutes everyone there was intimately connected with each other, Vander Gucht, and West.

It was a distillation of everything Oh Wonder is, and in that moment, each of us at staring up the stage glimpsed their Ultralife.