Oh Wonder makes the kind of music you’d play in a really aesthetic place, like a pastel-colored park bench or a cobblestone street, and pretend you’re having a cinematic main-character moment. Josephine and Anthony Vander West, who make up this alt-pop duo, are now also a married couple. But 22 Break was written during a time when they nearly broke up. Can you imagine that? Writing a break-up album with your partner on the verge of your break-up sounds so intimate and vulnerable, which is also exactly what the album feels like. Listening to 22 Break is like being invited to someone’s house at its messiest when the cabinets are overflowing and the walls are falling apart. And we get to see how they live and deal with it. It’s an opportunity, more than anything else, to witness a relationship as it is experienced from within.
22 Break opens with “Baby,” a soft and gentle song with Josephine’s clear vocals ringing like ripples in a quiet sea. The instruments act like ambient background sound, allowing her voice to be centered, and I begin the album feeling soothed. Josephine wonders, “What if my baby started running?/ What if she swallowed all the sea?” I think this song could bring her back.
But as we progress through the album, doubt and sorrow and frustration build up. The titular song, 22 Break, is the feeling of a fight, laid out in song. It begins with “I don’t like to fight,” with the instrumentals bursting out at the pre-chorus where you’re sick of fighting and you apologize just to be done with it. And as we move into the chorus, it gets a bit quieter again as the real feeling comes bubbling up: “It takes two to break a heart.” The hurt and pain haven’t left, and they aren’t resolved.
All of it reaches one of its many breaking points in “Don’t Let The Neighbourhood Hear” which has the most aching refrain: “Am I not good enough to be loved by you?” In the music video, they’re embracing and apart, screaming and crying, Josephine in a house that’s flooding, and Anthony in a house alight with flames. This explosive, chaotic pinnacle of all the built-up pain is followed by the quieter “Dinner,” the shortest song of the album. In a way, its softness is reminiscent of “Baby,” but there is no calmness or soothing here. The music is infused with an unsettling sensation, amplified by the smooth and casual sound of the instruments against Josephine’s crisp and sharp vocals.
The eerie vibe of “Dinner” stands out against the frustration and longing of the other songs. With a few more pieces like this, the album could have taken more unexpected journeys, which would have been a real pleasure given how well they pulled off such sounds in only 1:43 minutes. I’d really love to see Oh Wonder go to other uncanny places in future albums.
I would be remiss if I did not mention just how beautiful the music videos of this album are. Every song is accompanied by a black-and-white video, complementing the emotions pervading the music. The duo also used all the videos to make a short film of this album. So if you’re yet to listen to 22 Break, I’d recommend watching the film to get an audio-visual experience of the album.
Oh Wonder really pushed the limits of intimacy in this album, which leaves me thinking: where do you go from here? What would you write that is more emotionally rich than unpacking the cracks in your relationship with your partner? What kind of music would they find satisfying to make? That is to be seen. But in the meantime, you can check out 22 Break to see what I’m talking about and feel like you want to dig out all your heartbreak into art, just to experience what this vulnerability feels like.