Wavves' new album shows musical maturity
“Growing up sucks.”
This sentiment was all over the radio in the ‘90s when bands like Nirvana, Radiohead, Weezer, and other alt-rock misfits ruled the airwaves, but it has recently been lacking in much of newer popular music. That being said, Nathan Williams, who performs under the name Wavves, clearly went back to his childhood CD collection (remember those?) in preparation for his band’s fifth outing, Afraid of Heights, released last Tuesday on Mom+Pop records.
The record draws heavily from and pays homage to the greats of punk and alternative music in both musical and lyrical style. Like those artists he emulates, Williams writes songs about self-loathing, boredom, and a general disdain for just about everything — but with melodic, quiet verses and choruses with guitars and drums turned all the way up, they sound fun enough to shout along with the car windows down.
Williams has been recording under the name Wavves since 2008 with a rotating lineup of backing musicians. Along with Stephen Pope — the only other consistent member of the group — Williams recorded the entire fifth album himself and on his own dime. This independence afforded the pair a great deal of freedom of exploration, as well as a great diversity in music styles on the album. Album opener “Sail to the Sun” travels at breakneck speed with a flying guitar riff that brings you all the way up, and then slams you back down before you have a chance to catch your breath. “Dog,” on the other hand, features haunting strings and calm acoustic guitars that, if it weren’t for Williams’s nasal vocal delivery, would sound like an unreleased track from the Nirvana MTV Unplugged in New York performance.
Unlike 2010’s breakthrough hit King of the Beach, which sounded like it was recorded in your mom’s basement, Afraid of Heights features slick production that doesn’t polish away the rough edges. The greatly improved production also coincides with forward leaps in song writing; Afraid of Heights is much more consistent than many of the previous Wavves outings. He indulges in spacey studio experimentation and loose song structure at times — such as on “Mystic” and “Everything Is My Fault” — but as a whole, nearly every song sounds focused and fully realized.
On Afraid of Heights, Williams is just as full of self-loathing and boredom as before. But while on King of the Beach he sounded like he was having fun not having fun, this time the stakes feel higher and the mood a little less carefree. Perhaps he’s grown up, and realized that the privilege of complaining about boredom doesn’t last forever. Afraid of Heights shows a songwriter with enough perspective to look back but also enough maturity to start looking forward — and what he sees in both directions scares him (just listen to the title track or the regret-filled rocker “That’s on Me”). In many ways, Afraid of Heights harkens back to a time (the early-to-mid ’90s) when it seemed that being a slacker counted as a full-time profession to anyone could make a career of it. But as Williams now seems to have realized, we all have to grow up sometime.