by BEN BROCK WILKES
From a casual first listen Afraid of Heights revises little in Nathan Williams’ recipe for the noisy, apathetic surf rock of Wavves’ August 2010 release King of the Beach — a record that cornered a spot for the band on many album of the year lists and as a mainstay of summer festivals for the past two years. Williams’ knack for making hooky power-chord punk songs fronted by his repetitive, intoxicating nasal drone is alive and well. What has changed is the depth of his lyrical apathy and hopelessness, trading lines like “I’m just having fun with you” and “You’re never gonna stop me” for “first we gotta get high and sail to the sun / chances are none, we’ll all die alone just the way we live / in a grave.”
While King of the Beach was drenched in the carefree invulnerability of summer surf and smoke, Wavves has developed an aging adolescent sense of helpless and reckless abandon that overflows from every depressed line on Afraid of Heights. “Do what you’re brain says, take what you like / soon it’s over, you’ll regret your whole life / it’s not as easy as I thought it would be, that’s on me.” Williams asserts this painfully unrealized search for meaning, but finds comfort in the constraints of contemporary life by writing them off with a whatever, dude. This is the plague of the offspring of baby boomers; an extended adolescence that has too much to really want anything, viewing itself and this dilemma as unique and impossible to relate to. Williams channels this lonely egoism on the album’s title track, “I’ll always be on my own, fucked and alone.” He reminds this listener again on “Lounge Forward” with a lazy howl Billie Jo Armstrong would be proud of, “none of you will ever understand me.” Wavves’ obsession with drugs, death, and self-deprecation boils over into suicidal thoughts voiced through a warbling vibrato reminiscent of Conor Oberst on “Demon to Lean On;” “holding a gun to my head, so send me an angel / or bury me deeply instead, with demons to lean on.”
Afraid of Heights confronts its crippling anxiety and Williams’ apparent fear of fame with stoned acceptance, “There’s nothing to prove, nothing to do / there’s nowhere to go, nothing to lose.” In a way, this self-imposed creative limit protects the album from criticism, because if he doesn’t care then why should we? The 90s slacker rock sound of the album matches its lyrical tone; take the Cobain-heavy sludge of “That’s on Me” or the “Blister in the Sun” acoustic intro on “Demon to Lean On.” With better production quality than we’ve heard from Wavves before — this might not even qualify as "lo-fi" anymore — Williams is able to explore psychedelic sonic textures akin to his earlier work on Wavves from a new angle. The third track, “Mystic,” is an example of this experimentation and a sleeper on the record; the swirling, syncopated bass riff in the chorus is the closest thing the album has to a killer riff.
The nonchalant attitude Wavves approaches music-making with provides a cap to the height it can reach in terms of producing something truly excellent or groundbreaking. However, that’s kind of the whole point. I doubt Nathan Williams cares how much of a whiny brat he acts like, because we’re just jealous he turns the adolescent feelings we try to squelch into a fame that he apparently doesn’t even enjoy. The cheeky irony it takes to make a playful jangle-pop song about a friend killing a cop or to make a track called “I Can’t Dream,” the dreamiest track on the record, lets us know not to take it all too seriously either. [B]
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