Review: Wavves 'Afraid Of Heights' (originally for The 405)

by - Tuesday, July 23, 2013

In case you didn't get the memo, slacker pop is still in. Think backwards baseball caps, porch verandas, cats, all day reruns of bad sitcoms, getting wasted and skipping school. Nathan Williams and co., the artists colloquially known as Wavves, have been the messiahs to the Tumblr generation for years, the apathetic, the uninterested… but how disaffected are they? Anybody who has been to a Wavves show knows that they boast one of the most visceral and involved audiences you will ever come across. This band means a lot to people.

And then there is the man himself. With a comic book, video game, various collaborations, corporate deals and a personalised line of weed grinders to his name, Nathan Williams is hardly the slacker he likes to paint himself as. Having grown Wavves from his own project to a well-oiled touring machine of three, he is four albums deep and at a crossroads. Does he continue what he does best, or challenge the slacker stereotype?

Their first release on Mom and Pop music, also home to Fidlar, Sleigh Bells, Smith Westerns (all achingly cool hipster company), there is a risk of style over substance for Afraid Of Heights. With the 90s finally long enough ago to be considered vintage, the low-fi sound is well and truly in vogue, and monopolised to great effect on the record's better moments. Most would be familiar with 'Demon To Lean On', the lead single with the same adrenaline fuelled quality that made their flagship single 'King Of The Beach' a worthy soundtrack for a Fruit Shoot advert. It is the sort of song that could only be made by a massive Weezer fan (which Williams is), a remarkably early high point, considering it is only the second track. Luckily it is followed by 'Mystic', a 2:24 long melee of sounds that Howler would have traded their baseball jackets to have written, with Williams' croons of "when I'm hiiiiiiiigh" shrink-wrapped in trippy, sprawling reverb.

'Getting high because life suxx and nobody understands and there's nowhere good to skate in this dead end up' pretty much summarise the lexical themes of this record, not a million miles away from the lyrical content of their breakthrough record, King Of The Beach. Williams finds himself a pin-up for teenage angst the same way Arctic Monkeys became poster boys for the bored and frustrated youth back in 2005, searching for meaning and finding very little. Although Williams' vocal expression is not on the same playful, wry level of Alex Turner's, there is a certain poignancy in the way he deals with his feelings in such blasé terms. Title track 'Afraid of Heights' boasts the cheery hook "I'll always be on my own/Fucked and alone," drowning in Nirvana-esque self-pity before morphing into a psychedelic soup that should appeal to fans of Temples and Tame Impala, topped off with a barely-there cameo from Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley.

When Williams pulls himself out of the mire, there is some magic to be had. 'I Can't Dream', the album's closing track, sounds like a Bond Theme written by The Beatles, all Glastonbury headline worthy flower power that declares "I was fucked from the start/So would you like to set me free?." It sounds somewhat out of character for a band that normally relies on four chord power punk head-rushes, but as the song grows in narrative into a repetition of "I don't wanna remember anything," the same nonchalance and 'couldn't care less' attitude returns. It's a shame, and as the end to a record that is consistently negative in voice, it begs the question - 'how much of this insouciance is authentic, or is it simply a cover up for bigger paranoia?' One suspects that when Williams decides to face his demons head on rather than cover them up.

He is capable of making a truly stunning and captivating record, with flashes of it on display here. From the domestic abuse hinted at of 'Dog' and 'Beat Me Up' to the dismissal of religion ('Gimme A Knife''s "I love you Jesus/You raped the world"), even down to the way Williams talks about the record, describing it as a product of "depression and anxiety, being death-obsessed and the paranoid of impending doom."

Maybe the heights Williams is afraid of are that of his own success? Whilst Afraid Of Heights is far from a disappointment, it doesn't add anything new to Wavves cannon of interest. But then why should Nathan Williams care? He has made a darling of himself worldwide by nailing one of the main factors of popular music: lyrics non-committal enough that everybody can seek relatability, and melodies that you can hum. As the saying goes, if it isn't broken, don't try to radicalise it. After all, for someone who isn't actually saying very much, people sure seem to be listening.

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