Tracking The References To Prismatic Duality On Oh Wonder's New Album
In 2014, solo artist Josephine Vander Gucht and producer wonder Anthony West teamed up with the intention of becoming a songwriting duo, offering their lyrical wisdom to big-name music legends.
Their plan unexpectedly deviated from the clear path they had hoped, though, and posting their very first track, “Body Gold,” skyrocketed them to musical fascination. Fans were dying to know who these one-of-a-kind alt-pop voices were, so the two talents united as Oh Wonder. Following the success of their first single, the band has since released a dazzling debut record and, most recently, an exceptional sophomore effort. On their latest album, Ultralife, an overarching theme is humanity, told with an underlying abstract offering of the touring life: the anonymity that strikes upon realizing how fame can be alienating, the feeling of connecting with thousands through your music, the highs and the lows. These themes are apparent, but sneaky motifs of light, darkness, and color abound in Ultralife.
Here, The Music Mermaid analyzes each reference, noting every prismatic duality that Oh Wonder have so carefully, covertly hidden in their lyrics.
“Solo”: On Ultralife’s opening track, insistent loops of growing synth rhythms provide an anxious urgency before Oh Wonder’s signature breathy harmony kicks in. Low tones creep for half the song before a quick break for thick strums and desperate choir are introduced, then gone as quickly as they came in. The lyrics reflect on being in an overwhelming social environment and needing to take time to “be solo.”
The very first verse mentions lack of light -- “where the darkness fills the space” -- so listeners are already aware that this will be a darker, deeper tune than others. Later, the duo sing “limbs entangled in kaleidoscopes...” referencing the whirling rainbow patterns seen in a kaleidoscope. This reference is especially interesting because the light and color mentioned here are not natural or worldly; this is man-made, designed and executed with the intention of manipulating color, a malleable tool to see the color, pattern, and symmetry that the viewer wants to, a concept abstractly akin to taking control of one’s mental health during a social situation, either leaving or adjusting your company in an effort to have a wanted experience.
“Ultralife”: The album’s title track is a profound shout-out to the things that make our lives extraordinary, like love and art. Dynamic layers of synth bubbles and pounding percussion merge with impassioned vocals singing catchy hooks. The references begin immediately, as Josephine sings “lights out solo in the blue before I found you.” Packed in just one line, Oh Wonder offer two descriptions of apathy or loneliness. “Lights out” as another term for darkness; darkness being another term for sadness. “In the blue” as another term for feeling blue; meaning, again, sadness. Later, during the bridge, the duo sing “Illuminate the in-between,” in reference to a lover brightening their world.
“Lifetimes”: The slinking, keyboard-led sing-along deals with climate change, its non-believers, and the many demands on the world and its inhabitants to advance, to engage, to believe. Here, Anthony gets a slick solo verse, making the song an addictive mixture of smooth R&B, dance club banger, and dreamy pop. The song holds many references to natural landscapes like Earth, water, deserts, and light. The only lyrical reference sneaks in towards the end of the song during the refrain as the duo sing, “Swing sweet light this Earth of mine,” encouraging the natural goodness of this world to continue.
“High On Humans”: An otherworldly, robotic track about getting to know strangers, this song throbs and buzzes with high-energy computerized beats and catchy hooks. The track is decked out with light references. In the first verse, the duo sing “Staring at the ground in a lucid light,” conjuring images of a human constructing a personal bubble around themselves, focused on not daring to invade another person’s light. In the second verse, “I can make your day glow sun to rainbow / Colour in your step, let me lose your mind” is jam-packed with prismatic references. Here, Oh Wonder are suggesting that interactions with strangers can be a positive experience. Diction like “glow,” “sun,” “rainbow,” and “colour” offer bright meaning, each word associated with illumination. The end hook, “we won’t stop lighting our minds up,” is a way for Oh Wonder to once again encourage interaction because learning from others can “light” our minds up -- meaning it can fill our minds, increase our knowledge, make us happier and better people.
“All About You”: A cool, vibrating track about fighting narcissism, this song moves from a deep hip-hop tone to an electric slow-jam. Oh Wonder’s harmonies are breathier than ever, and they make resignation sound heavenly. The duo focus mostly on color here, each reference a way of expressing wealth and elitism. “A golden crown” suggests that the subject thinks they are royalty, proven again by the fact that they are “sipping from a silver cup” and “counting green at night.” Without ever outrightly offering the elements that make this subject so self-absorbed, listeners grasp the elite motif just by Oh Wonder’s use of color.
“Heavy”: Halfway into Ultralife, the upbeat, slightly hypnotic disco-dance tune combines a jazzy, ringing piano arrangement with woozy synthesizer and slaps of percussion while Josephine and Anthony are carefree and happy. Despite the seemingly simplistic lyrics about just having fun, several references to light are packed in. “That gold majestic glow” is one of the opening lines, so we hear the royal undertones from “gold” and “majestic” and “glow” imply some sort of illuminating goodness in this person. “Shoot into the sky until we’re too bright” combines the album’s other theme of space with light, suggesting a shooting star, a magical phenomenon that is as exciting as it is rare, and therefore special. The last reference is “hope in a one night blaze,” the last word describing a wild, fiery, uncontained light; words that could also describe an extraordinary person.
“Bigger Than Love”: On the slow, ethereal piano-led ballad, airy harmonies float above sparse sparkling arrangements. Despite the sweet rhythms, the lyrics are bittersweet, telling the story of two people madly in love at the wrong time. The duality of light and dark abound here, the first reference occurring in the opening line: “Heading west to where the sun sleeps” is an especially unique reference because “sun sleeps” suggests both light and darkness. The sun is an enormous source of light, but if the sun is sleeping, it’s not there to provide light, and thus gives way to darkness. This contrast is repeated when the duo sing “kill the stars above trying to fight the fade.” Stars are another source of light; but to kill stars is to kill light and once again offer darkness in its place. From then on, the rest of the song focuses on the dark as “waste away into the nightfall” and “like a tiger in the dark” are sung sadly.
“Heart Strings”: One of the most intriguing songs on Ultralife, the track is swollen with a groovy synth beat and surprising layers of soulful vocal contributions, sneaky percussion, and deliciously addictive rhythms. Most of the song offers space references, but one light reference is spotted during the second verse with “like the afterglow, your words were a million,” an abstract lyric referencing the extraordinary nature of phenomena, like the “afterglow” and a lover’s words.
“Slip Away”: About the limbo of being in a burnt-out relationship, this song sizzles and fizzles with a mesmerizing synth introduction. Soft, barely-there harmonies swirl around triple drum layers, creating a sonic wonder. Again, the duality of light and dark is tossed around. Three references is impressive, considering the track is contained in just three mini verses, the rest of the song being pure outro repetition. The first verse opens with “I sleep away all the light,” a sentence that negates the light, thus suggesting darkness, further implying this when the duo sings “When the day turns to night,” a more natural way of explaining the turning of time. In the third verse, listeners are treated to light this time, with the line “as the sun comes out to play” sharing light (only to be wished away in the next line, another mention of light turning to dark).
“Overgrown”: Getting closer to the end of Ultralife is a buzzy, eclectic dance tune. Computerized beep-bops dot the song, along with thick synth lines and gentle percussion, as Josephine and Anthony sing metaphors for mental illness. References to light, dark, and color are wildly apparent in this song. First, the subject is “hanging on a silver string,” and later during the chorus, the duo are “pulling down stars just to make you glow.” This is a curious line because by giving light to one source, you are effectively taking away light from another source, thus stealing light but manufacturing darkness. Next are lyrics heavy with references: “In the middle of the night when you’re on your own / I’m chasing down light in the indigo.” Here we have “night” as darkness and “light” and “indigo” as a color -- our three tropes represented together. Finally, the second verse includes “catching fire, let the light become / shallow edges left of sun,” which depicts three clear references to illumination (in the form of “fire,” light itself, and “sun”), all desperate to brighten up a person in times of need.
“My Friends”: The second to last song on the album is a slow-moving piano-led ballad. A classic, stripped piano arrangement backs the duo’s melancholy delivery as they confess their nostalgia for family and friends back home. Lyrically, the song is simplistic, and only one reference to light can be found: “Oh how the light would change.” Throughout the album, we’ve been treated to a metamorphosis of sorts, the constant push-and-pull between light and dark. Here, Oh Wonder outrightly admit to it, noting that being with friends would change the light from a darkened dull attempt to a bright, unwavering glow.
“Waste”: Ultralife’s closing song is an admission that living life solo, as the album’s opener would suggest, is a waste because humans are hungry for connection -- interaction, love, friendship, these relationships are what give us life. The light and darkness references are complete here, and instead we get a few subtle nods to color. “Like a grey evergreen” and “screaming at the walls in jet black” are ways of using color to describe the dark, sad nature of being alone.