[TW: This album review discusses rape and sexual assault.]
In early 2018, the Irish news was saturated with the Belfast rape trial. Rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding had allegedly raped and sexually assaulted a young woman, with two other men, Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison, facing lesser charges. Beyond being widely covered, the trial itself clearly showed that rape culture was alive and well in both the Republic and the North, with the Irish Times noting that the victim’s underwear was held up in court for the judge and jury to see. I, along with many other women living in Ireland, followed the case closely, despite how emotionally draining it could be. We all saw ourselves or our sisters or our friends in the woman who bravely stood up and accused sports stars on the rise. We didn’t want to let her down.
Three days before the verdict was announced, my friend Louise and I saw Dream Wife play at Dublin’s Workmans Club. Lead singer Rakel Mjöll, guitarist/vocalist Alice Go and bassist/vocalist Bella Podpadec immediately commanded the stage. It felt as though the entire set was building up to “Somebody,” their cathartic song decrying sexual assault and reclaiming bodily autonomy. “I am not my body, I am somebody,” we sang in unison for ourselves and for every survivor, as audience members crowded at the foot of the stage. We yelled the lyrics like a spell that could somehow make the decision go our way. On March 28, the men were acquitted on all charges.
Dream Wife’s electric performance provided some solace for everyone in attendance that night, showing us that we are heard and we are not alone. As a band, the London-based trio’s appeal goes beyond their willingness to speak to uncomfortable truths. Their self-titled debut coursed with unmitigated energy, from opener “Let’s Make Out” to the shout-laden final track “F.U.U.” With slashing guitar and thrumming bass, their songs were made for moshing.
The group’s sophomore record So When You Gonna… is noticeably less fiery, though you wouldn’t guess that from the first track, “Sports!,” which comes out the gate at full speed. The videogame-inspired bridge and the Garfunkel and Oates-esque line “These are the rules / Sports!” are just a few elements that make it one of the best songs on the album. The momentum dissipates fairly quickly into the album, though some of the energy from their debut peeks through on the title track and the live-while-we’re-young banger “RH RN.”
While the all-or-nothing feeling of the first record is missed, the progression makes sense. Dream Wife was the sound of being young, of kissing strangers (“Let’s Make Out”) and endless summers (“Kids”). Now that the members of Dream Wife are a bit more grown up, their musical choices reflect that. It’s a trite observation about a sophomore album, but cliches become those for a reason: They’re true again and again. The band members are slightly less rash, though the songs are still punctuated by angular guitar and Mjöll’s shrieks that would give Poly Styrene a run for her money.
Dream Wife’s vocals shine on So When You Gonna, from the crisp harmonies on the wistful “U Do U” to Mjöll’s vocal gymnastics on “Homesick.” “Her enunciation of certain words, particularly on “Temporary,” which is about a miscarriage, lends them new weight. The band also finds more lyrical complexity on this record, expanding upon the punchy yet often repetitive lines of Dream Wife. “Validation” explores just that, with Mjöll’s delivery verging on spoken word at times. “Cloudy judgement with a clit on the loose, A faltering romance feeding me shades of blue,” she sing-speaks, echoing the feelings of an ill-conceived hookup.
Their own foresight is shown on “Old Flame,” about the nostalgia of hooking up with an ex, but with the knowledge that things have changed (“We were kids with nothing to lose – absolutely nothing /Living out our wasted youth”).The garage-punk outfit maintains their focus on serious issues that affect people with vaginas, including abortion on the final song “After the Rain.” The track becomes hymnal by the end as Mjöll reiterates, “It’s my choice my life / It’s my will my sacrifice / It’s my body my right / Not for others to decide.” Rain crackles like vinyl as the album fades to a close.
Dream Wife have tapped into that certain je ne sais quoi that makes for a compelling emotional outlet, even if their energy is slightly dampened on So When You Gonna…. Their vulnerability shows strength and playfulness are the best weapons against malaise on their new record, proving themselves to be a much-needed balm in 2020.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.