The London pop duo’s impulse to pare down seems admirable, but the songs can be monotonous.
On the best-known song to feature Oh Wonder, you can barely hear them. The London duo lilt under the chorus of Lil Uzi Vert’s “The Way Life Goes,” a sample that morphs their original track “Landslide” from a hazy flicker into a surging, snaking beat. It’s a reminder of what’s missing in a lot of Oh Wonder’s own music. They engineer delicate vocal electro-pop tracks, sleeker than bedroom pop, with an earnestness that separates them from algorithmic chillwave. On their latest album, No One Else Can Wear Your Crown, their elegant, muted production seems destined to be background noise; the stray lyrics that do catch the attention can be treacly. Each song is a pleasant listen that dissolves forgettably into the next.
This may be because the singers fail to translate their intentions. “Dust,” the album’s opener, is meant to represent “the state of the world and the craziness of capitalism,” the duo told Billboard. Instead, the lyrics sound like a hotboxed dorm room: “Don’t you think it’s kind of funny, the way we spin across the sun?” they sing. “We’re all made up of each other, from dust to dust to dust.” “Hallelujah” builds on yawning violins, ready to soundtrack Disney’s next princess movie: “There’s a crown, covered in glitter and gold/I’m going to wear it, whether you like it or not.” The cloying statements make you want to tune out, and the liquified pianos and fluttering drums don’t offer much interest, either.
That spareness is intentional: These songs aren’t hollowed out, but purposefully small. “We will write a song on the piano, take it into the studio, and then layer it up with as many as 200 sounds, strip it back to maybe 10 and that’s the finished album,” band member Josephine Vander Gucht once said of their songwriting process. The impulse to pare down seems admirable, but the songs can be monotonous—tightly constructed loops of synth and kick drums, skeletal pulses that brace flurries of light instruments. The record swishes from track to track, building the kind of soundscape most often associated with coffeeshops or lo-fi beats playlists. When the synthetic strings do break through, they can overpower the dominating quiet: “I Wish I Never Met You” and “Happy” suffer from similar onslaughts of violin.
The best moments of songwriting reach for nuance and maturity. “Happy” is a gauzy, piano-flecked ode to an ex’s new relationship: “It’s good to see you loved/Let’s call it even,” the duo coo. “Better Now” conjures concrete images to tell the story of a family member awaiting a difficult childbirth: a hospital vending machine, cups of cold coffee, the endless bleeps of machines. Oh Wonder’s musical project works when the simplicity of the writing matches the simplicity of the sound. When the former element tilts out of sync—gaudy, cliché lyrics about holding cards to chests and feeling “blindsided by love”—the record caves in on itself.