Island · October 8, 2021
Six years, four albums, and countless hours on tour around the world have set the stage for Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West of alt-pop duo Oh Wonder to once again dive head first into the sets that soundtracked their rise to fame and their own romance since 2014. Fans last heard from the duo in the form of their early quarantine-inspired EP Home Tapes, a five-track collection of singles released over the course of the couple’s extended time at home under the UK’s lockdown between April and June 2020. Since then, the now Vander-Wests have opened their own London-based café and even took to social media in August to share photos of their wedding. But on 22 Break, the long-standing duo fight their doubts, demons, and each other as the pandemic-prompted lockdown widens catastrophic cracks in their relationship.
Oh Wonder has repeatedly referred to their latest release as “the first break-up album in history written and recorded with the person you’re breaking up with,” and while 22 Break may have actually saved their relationship rather than ended it, its songs suggest a far greater degree of uncertainty about the fate of their romance and of Oh Wonder itself. Both lyrically and instrumentally, tracks like “Baby” and “Free” veer from the duo’s signature use of synchronized singing and instead give listeners much lonelier-sounding vocal performances from Josephine, whose voice on both tracks is isolated and accompanied by minimalistic production in a way that spotlights just how introspective, personal, and diary-like her feelings are.
“I’m just afraid that I’m failing / I’m just afraid that I’m done / I’m just afraid that I’m washed up and dried out and the water ain’t gonna save me,” she ponders softly on “Baby,” an opening track that informs listeners of just how unsure the duo were about their future together. Singing together once again in the darker moments that followed Home Tapes, the couple began to question their romantic troubles on the ironically upbeat-sounding “Down,” which showcases the return of their synchronized vocals layered with a steady drumbeat and notes of acoustic guitar, bass, clarinet, and woodwinds all harmoniously tied to their signature keyboard track and lyrics asking, “Am I gonna get this right?”
Tracks like “Don’t Let The Neighbourhood Hear” and “Kicking The Doors Down” capture the quintessential frustration, anxiety, and confusion of a relationship in disarray, but one with hopes for revival. The title track “22 Break” is the exploding result of the pent-up emotion and unspoken troubles that brought the duo to this point, with both of them belting, “It takes two to break a heart,” a refrain that bursts with piano, percussion, and horns just as loud.
22 Break is raw, vulnerable, and more transparent than Oh Wonder has ever been before with songs that are less of the evergreen love pop anthems of their past records and more of the kind of personal entries that timestamp a very clear breaking point in their own lives, one from which they are rebounding from today. Not every experiment on the album lands, however, with Anthony’s jarring use of a Bon Iver-esque vocoder feeling somewhat out of place next to Josephine’s less-edited vocals for the tone and subject matter of tracks like “Twenty Fourteen,” a reflection on the couple’s beginnings and an optimistic look towards their future.
What Oh Wonder has ultimately given listeners and fans, though, is a riveting, introspective renewal of themselves to each other and to their sound for what’s to come.