Songwriter Nathan Williams and longtime collaborator/former Jay Reatard bassist Stephen Pope deliver another solid album of self-hating surf pop, with increasingly sophisticated production values.
Whether you are adulated or annoyed by him, Nathan Williams proves there’s more to Wavves than public breakdowns and the vapid hype of MTV serials with latest album Afraid of Heights.
The whole ‘beach rock’ style is pretty overused lately, and although I love a lot of what it has to offer, it can be difficult not to roll one’s eyes instinctively at titles even containing the word ‘beach’ now, so you have to be very special to stand out or achieve any kind of long-term success whatsoever.
From the humble beginnings of homemade laptop recordings, to being excitedly courted by critics and propelled into the spotlight with 2010’s summer slacker smash King of The Beach, San Diego’s Wavves has had an interesting ride.
Nathan Williams is well known for the apathetic ‘fuck you’s, social anxieties and crippling self-loathing of his lyrics. Of course the irony of self-loathing in art is that it forces you to relentlessly analyse your own faults in a totally narcissistic and self-obsessed way.
I know it well, and (without trying to be too presumptuous), I’m sure my life sucks a whole lot worse than it does for Nathan Williams.
For this reason, I can understand listener’s hang-ups when they hear the bored drone and endlessly self-referential malaise of Williams’ singing. However, on Afraid of Heights, his restlessness seems a lot less bratty or forced; he has dropped a lot of the posturing and pretending not to care. Or perhaps (infinitely more likely) it’s just that he genuinely no longer has to care, so has instead decided to embrace his suffering, since it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon…
Wavves is surely an easy target for derision, but Afraid of Heights is not a self-conscious record in the way previous efforts were at times, and because of this, Williams’ downbeat introversion is more effective than it ever has been before. This is probably down to the project being entirely self-funded, and working alongside big time pop producer John Hill (Santigold, Rihanna, M.I.A.) to make sure everything came out exactly as Wavves wanted.
Afraid of Heights further pushes the variety and slickly produced sound of King of the Beach, but in a decidedly less upbeat and scrappy way.
The crunchy power chords are still there, but they have a more processed chug and a sparkly mainstream sheen. This sometimes makes it easy to tune out from the overall experience, although the songs are deceptively catchy and become stubborn ear worms whether you realise what is happening or not.
There is the twinkly Pet Sounds-esque lilt of opener “Sail To The Sun”, which rapidly transforms into a spirited, radio-friendly thrash-fest. Just when it’s tempting to write the song off as yet more marketable, sophomoric angst or commercial background noise, the hook arrives in the form of a chilling watery guitar run at 2:24. And if you weren’t paying attention, you might not even notice Williams repeatedly singing about being “in a grave”.
Second single “Demon To Lean On” is a melodic anthem about suicide, faithfully continuing to catalogue Williams’ relentless pessimism and acute anxieties.
The glassy surf tones and fuzzy beats of “Mystic” get caught in an almost schizophrenic, swirling undertow of pounding riffs and lush, spacey ambience, while “Lunge Forward” plays out like your typical teenage temper tantrum and is the whiniest of the album cuts; a sneery, bad-tempered dirge that nonetheless perfectly embodies all the terrors of teenage misery. “Lunge Forward” also provides the best evidence of any songwriting formula developed for Afraid of Heights, which appears to be bruisingly noisy guitar playing and lyrical aggression cooled out by a buoyantly beachy “woooo-woooooo” falsetto chorus to keep things generally light and lively.
This is followed by “Dog”, the first track I genuinely loved straightaway and the one I have a tendency to loop on repeat, a depressive ode to subservience in relationships. It’s starry, plinking xylophones and loping bassline start things off sparsely before a dejected acoustic guitar strum and some moody tremoloed orchestration ambles around like a sick, wounded animal.
Title track “Afraid of Heights” is an aloof hymn to alienation (“I’ll always be on my own / fucked and alone”) where the denseness of the guitar onslaught is counteracted by chiming xylophones and brightened by smooth Brian Wilson-esque crooning.
“Cop”, a bizarrely chirpy vignette about a friend killing a cop, is a rare moment when Williams is story telling instead of reciting from a diary, and its something he should do more often.
“Beat Me Up” is a fittingly punchy number, a companion piece to “Dog” dealing with abuse, power struggles and being submissive in love.
The lethargic impassiveness and all-too familiar territory of self-focused song themes can tend to drag things down a bit over the full course of the album, and by the time we arrive at “I Can’t Dream”, even Williams himself sounds exhausted. But who wouldn’t be, wrestling with the seemingly inescapable burdens of existence he contemplates song after song on Afraid of Heights?
Although undoubtedly more of a grower than King of The Beach, even with the more accessible production values, Afraid of Heights is really not drastically different; it is still almost comically riddled with self-doubt and hopelessness (“Paranoid”, “Everything Is My Fault”), but there is an improved confidence and a more relaxed flow to the work (maybe down to the ritual Don Julio drinking sessions during the recording process).
I could name check a lot of 90’s guitar bands Wavves must look up to, but that would be incredibly boring while also unfairly suggesting a total lack of originality, and by now you’ve heard all the comparisons anyway.
Suffice it to say, if you’re a fan of robust, energetic performances featuring strong choruses with painfully adolescent lyrics, and not too sheep-like to feel betrayed when an artist deviates from the standard shitty “lo-fi” sound aesthetic, you will find lots to enjoy in Afraid of Heights.
All words by Carrie Quartly, you can read more of her writing on the site here.