Wonder is possibly the year’s most aptly named album thus far: in each song, Lisa Mitchell seems awed and delighted by the world, her own feelings, and the sounds that surround her. There’s no grittiness, no cynicism – just playfulness, optimism, and earnest naivety.
The album opens with the sounds of Mitchell walking down the street, singing a Broadway tune to no one but herself. This fades into the xylophone roll that begins “Neopolitan Dream. ” The arrangement is sparse and kidlike: looping piano and acoustic guitar, twinkling xylophone (or toy piano?), double-tracked vocals, handclaps. Like a female-fronted Boy Least Likely To, Mitchell opens the record with innocent exuberance, and it’s hard not to enjoy it, if only because she seems to be having so much fun.
From there on out, Mitchell spends the record bathed in cotton candy instrumentation, mumbling little girl poetry for her own enjoyment. The album’s cohesiveness is remarkable, both from song to song and between each track’s lyrical content and overall atmosphere. Single “Coin Laundry” sounds like the airy daydream its lyrics describe. “Can I be the girl that you met in the coin laundry?” Mitchell coos, and you can almost see her puppy dog eyes and back-and-forth swinging legs. “Pirouette” quakes and tumbles gracefully, a piece of dance in and of itself.
Mitchell’s major success is that she has crafted a solo album that sounds remarkably unlike most solo albums. No one could be faulted for expecting the full-length debut of an Australian Idol finalist to reek either of manufactured pop star-ization or one-girl-and-an-acoustic-guitar coffee house mediocrity. But Wonder comes from some place entirely different, closer to St. Vincent and Regina Spektor than Kelly Clarkson and Nelly Furtado. Mitchell has avoided the solo artist’s temptation of self-indulgence: each song has something different to offer here, and none is immediately mistakable for any other.
But what holds Wonder back is that, though each song stands on its own feet, few stand tall enough to keep my attention. “Neopolitan Dream” and “Coin Laundry” entice repeat listening. So does the swirling, half-mourning, half-rejoicing “Stevie,” and the album’s most surprising and plainly gorgeous ballad, “Valium.” These songs are the stuff of classic pop records. The tracks in between just slide by too inconspicuously – enjoyable, but somehow missing something.
To say Wonder is a joy from start to finish would be, for me, an exaggeration. But Mitchell’s earnestness throughout implies it was a joy to create, and I’m certain for many listeners, the record will meet and exceed its creator’s expectations. Wonder is a record for those with an appetite for twee feminity and sounds that stay on the trebley side of things. More importantly, it’s for those interested in music that derives its power from some element beyond the sum of its parts. For those of you who, like me, are torn between delight and disappointment, let’s keep our fingers crossed for the next one.