Why Wavves? Why not Times New Viking or Lovvers, or Harlem or Male Bonding? Wasn’t he just meant to be some loser “faggot” anyway, consigned to the bargain bin of Mediafire for all eternity after the quote unquote no-fi scene collapsed? Weren’t his fifteen minutes up quite literally in the space of fifteen thoroughly hilarious minutes? It seems Nathan Williams rather predictably forgot to read the script and now finds himself in a position where a not inconsiderate army of loyal followers will defend him to the hilt against haters, get Snacks tattoos in his honour and retweet his every move/emoji/Simpsons joke. He has become something of a Pied Piper for a generation of Twitter-savvy alt rock fans; and naturally, where impressionable teens go, MTV duly follows. All of which amounts to Afraid Of Heights, Wavves’ fourth full-length release, being a reasonably large deal.
brand band has proven surprisingly durable can be put down almost entirely to 2010’s King Of The Beach, probably the finest album with strong pop-punk leanings since the movement lost steam around the turn of the millenium. The transformation from ultra-lo-fi meltdown monster to flippant figurehead of a sub-movement that places impetus squarely on sugar-rush thrills undoubtedly saved his career, but significantly ramped up pressure on the self-confessed alcoholic. For a man who delivered three records in as many years, the increasingly long wait for Afraid Of Heights to surface wasn’t especially encouraging, nor was the fact that Life Sux, a stopgap EP released in 2011, clocked in at under 12 minutes of merely adequate non-collaborative material. Snippets of information about Williams acting as a free agent following a departure from Fat Possum and hiring a proper studio to work with über-producer John Hill out of his own pocket while still very much on the sauce seemed to signal the kind of slow-motion career wipeout that would be recanted ad nauseam on Cracked lists in the near future.
In a curiously accurate imitation of his signature playing style, Nathan has once again managed to shift gears at precisely the right moment, pile-driving down into the ground at maximum velocity before dynamically veering off and upwards once more. The general tone of Afraid Of Heights certainly reflects Williams’ personal troubles well; the lyrical content seems to have transformed from “never gonna stop me” to a bleak nihilism that acknowledges the only person likely to halt Williams is himself, a topic approached most bluntly on lead single “Demon To Lean On.”
Gone are the (possibly ironic) carefree surf ditties like “Convertible Balloon” and generally sunny vibes, replaced instead by Nathan in full-on self-loathing mode. Much of the subject matter suggests Nathan may be growing weary of his own hazy lifestyle, although the dinginess is really a bummer. Quite the opposite, in fact–the extended period of gestation has resulted in a fine successor to King Of The Beach, containing enough variation to revitalize an inherently limited formula while still remaining tangibly Williams’ work. Suffice to say, if you didn’t like Wavves before, there’s little here that’ll convince you to grab a board. Every other “ayyy” or “ehhh” is stretched out with a strangled croak, above half the choruses and bridges are filled in with Williams “wooo”-ing in some manner and there are power chords fucking e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e.
Williams is also more blatantly in thrall to his influences than ever before. I was desperately hoping I could get through the review without mentioning Green Day, Weezer, or Nirvana but it’s difficult not to: the coupling of snotty punk delivered at breakneck pace with instantly memorable pop hooks is unmistakably the influence of Dookie, as well as Billie Joe Armstrong’s lackadaisical half-baked worldview. “Afraid Of Heights,” one of the clear standouts, is vintage Pinkerton power-pop, chugging away with quiet-loud dynamics before breaking into the monstrously anthemic refrain of “I’ll always be on my own,” while “Paranoid” features the most showboating, Cuomo-aping solo I’ve ever heard Williams pull off, racing clean out of The Blue Album.
Equally it’s difficult to hear rotund, melodic basslines rising over lurching squall at the start of a handful of tracks without thinking immediately of Krist Novoselic’s head bobbing along; that’s not to mention “Demon To Lean On” having a section that almost replicates the tone and delivery of “All Apologies”‘ outro to the letter. This is a mid-90s throwback record through and through, right down to the big-budget production. The utilisation of Hill largely pays off, bringing the pounding toms and machine-gun fills on “Lunge Forward” to life, where they previously might have been buried deep beneath a layer of tape hiss. On the flipside, the arena-sized guitars sound a tad overly clinical and the endearingly scuzzy quality that brought many to Wavves has been neutered somewhat.
That added input leads to some interesting moments where Williams explores beyond the set parameters, most notable with the unlikely deployment of cello: the effects-heavy vocal take on closing track “I Can’t Dream” drifts along quite sweetly alongside the sweeping strings, winding up in roughly the same ballpark as “Something In The Way.” Similarly the mid-tempo “Dog”–which couples with the title track as the record’s outstanding core–is complimented perfectly by both cello and glockenspiel that, alongside very emotive harmonised vocal lines and gently rising guitar lines, sounds the spiritual heir of Unplugged-era Cobain. Both tracks are surprisingly affecting, which is commendable for a man with more press shots of his finger up his nose than anyone else I can really dredge up.
Afraid Of Heights isn’t perfect, and while no track is straight-up bad, the second half sags slightly as the run of “Cop” through “Everything Is My Fault” is merely perfunctory and a little uninspired. That trio of tracks actually hosts some decent ideas – the former has weedy chorus but the middle section takes a pleasing left-turn, while the latter is a reverb-drenched, pained dirge with the kind of Spector-esque Wall of Sound employed at times on King Of The Beach, but neither is executed well-enough to really merit praise. But on balance, it’s what you’d expect from a Wavves record, hardly revelatory and moderately inconsistent, but packed full of reckless exuberance and fun, hyperkinetic jams to thrash around to that take only a couple of listens tops to get lodged firmly in your head. Few people do this better than Nathan Williams, and Afraid Of Heights throws yet more weight behind the idea that sometimes a little instant gratification is what we want, even if it’s not what we need.