Album Review: WILDES – Other Words Fail Me

[AWAL; 2023]

Other Words Fail Me is a debut album that was hard fought to come into the world. WILDES (the moniker of singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ella Walker; not to be confused with the German duo of the same name) has been through the metaphorical wringer over the past years: after making waves back in 2016 with her debut single “Bare”, the following years found Walker disconnecting from her music. “I felt like I was fulfilling a quota,” she remarks over her time spent at the whims of her then manager and record label boss. It was a battle hard won, but after months of silence Walker was able to resurface in full control of her music.

The turmoil didn’t end there though. A six week stint in the isolated seaside town of North Shields at the start of 2020 was abandoned after a national lockdown came into play, and her producer at the time stopped responding to her messages. The first draft of Other Words Fail Me was subsequently scrapped. During all this time, Walker was also reckoning with a long-term abusive relationship; returning to her family home during lockdown provided a respite from it, allowing their lives to become detached. She spent her lockdown recording some 40+ songs from her sister’s old bedroom (now her makeshift studio), processing all of the trauma of the past years of her life through her music.

Working with Irish producer St Francis Hotel, the version of Other Words Fail Me we hear today is one that carries the weight of its past on its shoulders. It’s evident in the heavy tones of her piano ballads, lurking in the foggy atmosphere that lingers across the album, and permeating her hopeful lyrics. This is an album that is both a healing device for Walker herself, but also for others too where possible. “I hope if anyone hears it, it resonates with them, because I put so much into it. I want it to make a difference to people’s lives,” she’s said.

And these songs are ready to welcome you in when you need a shoulder to cry on. “Settle down restless / I’ll hold you tight till the end of the road,” she comforts on “Restless”. The song’s relatively sparse arrangement seems to want the listener to fill in the gaps, inferring whatever they need from the space between the notes. Similarly on “Far And Wide” she offers, “If you want a soul to fight beside / I will follow far and wide” while the repeated mantra on “Real Life” reassures “Near, far, I am where you are.” There is illation to be made from Walker’s lyrics throughout the album, be they referring to her past relationship or not, but she knows the value in leaving just enough space for a listener’s personal manoeuvring too.

At its best, the album travels above the Wuthering Heights-like fog and cloud, away from the possibility of heartache. Aforementioned “Far And Wide” thrums with a quietly propulsive rhythm section, making for a moment of genuine sunshine while “Just like You” is punctuated by dewy strings and daydreamy pep, showing Walker’s knack for writing a simple and clear hook. Final track “True Love (Make Me Believe)” unfurls into a lightly dazzling display, The Flaming Lips dropping by to colour the edges and add a gently psychedelic edge to the song. 

The Flaming Lips feature is a notable moment for Walker, but also one of those instances where the full potential seems held back; the track begs to go louder and would be one of the few moments here that would be justified in trying to aim to fill an arena. Likewise, the two minute opening track “Woman In Love” disappears all too soon. A musical red herring and a mission statement above all else, it would have made a much stronger impression if it doubled down on its bluesy snarl instead of running out of steam before the track ends. There’s great potential on Other Words Fail Me, and when it’s realised it’s rewarding, but when it isn’t the results can come up lacking.

Going back to those atmospherics once again, they can take a few listens to penetrate; at the first few glances the album can feel unmemorable and grey, but sink into them and some gold is to be found. The album loses a little bit of the concise direction it sets up on the first half thanks to a few misses; the otherwise bland and dolorous “Anytime” that threatens to get swallowed by the atmosphere come its end, but cuts itself just as the noise takes over and the sonic palette gets interesting. But the Other Words Fail Me still wears its hard-won heart on its sleeve. Now WILDES is in full control of her music, she can continue on the path of helping herself and anyone else she can through her music.