Two years on from his third record ‘King of the Beach’, ‘Afraid of Heights’ finds Wavves’ Nathan Williams adjusting himself to life after chillwave, the short-lived music scene for which he and his girlfriend, Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast briefly became a sort-of lo-fi Sid and Nancy.
Unlike Bethany and Bob Bruno’s own sophomore record, he seems to have realised that singing about being stoned all the time quickly goes past its sell-by-date, whilst the presence of John Hill (MIA, Santigold) behind the mixing desk appears to be sign that Wavves are shooting for a wider audience here than on previous outings. Hill’s impact is immediately tangible on the bright and crunchy guitar sound of ‘That’s On Me’ and ‘Sail to the Sun’ which rock the same emo power-pop vibe as Weezer or Brand New but too often Williams is guilty of backsliding into territory he’s covered better before.
The main barrier to a more mature audience though is Williams himself: self-pitying song titles like ‘Beat Me Up’ and ‘Everything is My Fault’ indicate a songwriter who struggles to leave teenage angst behind, yet lacks the wit to eloquently deconstruct the situations in which he finds himself. Rivers Cuomo has many flaws but he’s always been good at finding a universal metaphor for his inner turmoil; Williams seems content to blame others or stew in his own juices.
With ‘Afraid of Heights’ he’s bought into a calculated aesthetic - an album that sounds like it’s being played on shit speakers even when it’s not and one on which latching onto a particular phrase and repeating it over and over is enough to elicit memories of endless summer days. Unfortunately when the phrase is ‘I Don’t Know’ you’re not even sure what Williams is rebelling against. ‘Whaddya got?’ snarled Marlon Brando; Williams is more likely to shrug and spark up another joint. That’s a shame because for a committed stoner he has a way with peppy, energetic tunes that cut straight to the chorus in a Ramones-hit-the-beach manner - ‘Demon to Lean On’ sounds like Nirvana might have done if Kurt Cobain had fully embraced his bubblegum side, whilst ‘Mystic’s fuzzy vocal and handclap percussion would sit perfectly happily on ‘King of the Beach’.Four albums in, Wavves may be the voice of a stoned and drifting young America but they’ve never found a voice of their own.