When you’re trying to make it through tough times, you need a little light to find your way. That light blazes brightly on the alchemical second album from Penelope Isles, an album forged amid emotional upheaval and band changes. Setting the uncertainties of twentysomething life to alt-rock and psychedelic songs brimming with life, colour and feeling, Which Way to Happy emerges as a luminous victory for Jack and Lily Wolter, the siblings whose bond holds the band tight at its core.
Produced by Jack and mixed by US alt-rock legend Dave Fridmann, the result is an intoxicating leap forward for the Brighton-based band, following the calling-card DIY smarts of their 2019 debut, Until the Tide Creeps In. Sometimes it swoons, sometimes it soars. Sometimes it says it’s OK to not be OK. Pitched between fertile coastal metaphors and winged melodies, intimate confessionals and expansive cosmic pop, it transforms “difficult second album” clichés into a thing of glorious contrasts: a second-album surge of up-close, heartfelt intimacies and expansive, experimental vision.
Warm and rippling new single ‘Iced Gems’ is a sorrowed lament, played out over the gentlest of fluttery keyboards and experimental electronic sounds, while Lily’s ‘Sailing Still’ charts the life of a relationship to a slow-burn and sorrowed soundscape of dulcitones, cello, violin and more: building in increments to a climax of measured grandeur.
The album swerves into Mercury Rev and MGMT’s cosmic slipstream with ‘Miss Moon,’ a galloping centrepiece with an irresistible call to dream: “Hey, kids – look up!” Steering the album through further contrasts, ‘Have You Heard’ is a feelgood flurry of insistent, pulsing space-rock; ‘Pink Lemonade,’ meanwhile, is a song of sweet, sharp beauty, touching on fading childhood memories and lifted by Fiona Brice’s strings. ‘11 11’ hosts Lily’s most tender vocal yet: recorded in one take through tears, it finds Penelope Isles at their most exposed, with Brice’s strings weeping in sympathy. Finally, ‘In a Cage’ cogitates on confinement yet finds solace in field recordings of happy, high times – a judicious note of meditative reflection after a giddy ride.
More field recordings were made during a stay at a small cottage in Cornwall, where Penelope Isles began work on the album. With romantic heartache already in the air, things swiftly got worse: lockdown began, claustrophobia kicked in and emotions ran high. As Jack puts it, “We were there for about two or three months. It was a tiny cottage with four of us in and we all went a bit bonkers, and we drank far too much, and it spiralled a bit out of control. There were a lot of emotional evenings and realisations, which I think reflects in the songs.”
After Cornwall, the band redid many of the rhythm tracks, recorded a little in Brighton, then recorded more in Cornwall at their parents’ house. “It was,” says Jack, “a proper rollercoaster ride.”
The ride continued with Fridmann, whose recent credits include Isles’ favourites Mogwai’s No 1 album, As the Love Continues. As Lily puts it, the process of sending Fridmann a mix, receiving it back in the morning and then having five hours to make decisions on it resulted first in stress, then in something sublime. “He made everything so colourful. It’s an intense-sounding record – a hot record. It was so refreshing to have that blast of energy from Dave – it’s like he framed our pictures.”
Away from the confines of the cottage, the Wolters also opened the door to a collaboration with storied composer Fiona Brice, whose credits include John Grant, Lost Horizons and Placebo. A “big bucket-list tick” for Jack and Lily, the team-up results in glorious arrangements across the album.
On its release, Until the Tide Creeps In received rave reviews from Q, DIY, The Line of Best Fit and many others, while finding champions in Steve Lamacq and Shaun Keaveny. Meanwhile, extensive touring saw the Isles develop into a formidable live force, with ‘Gnarbone’ emerging as a sure-fire show-stopper.
Now, the Isles have 11 more show-stoppers to add to the mix. At the album’s heart, the band’s core traits have never been stronger: the bond between the Wolters, a sensitivity towards complex feelings, a desire to celebrate life in all its facets and an ambitious reach combine to create an album that feels utterly, emphatically present on every front.