Take On the World
Wavves' Post-Meltdown Makeover King of the Beach
I have a soft spot for Wavves, for a few reasons. Moving from the most solipsistic to the general: Bandleader Nathan Williams trash-talked me in print ("Fuck Eric Grandy at The Stranger!"), which is sweet; he seems, in person if not always in his rather terse interviews, like a likably funny, smart-ass kind of guy; and, most crucially, his last album, Wavvves, was a heavy-rotation hit around here last summer.
Williams made his name as a smart-aleck fuckup. That Wavves/Williams's biggest media moment of the past year was an ecstasy/Valium/Xanax–fueled meltdown at Barcelona's Primavera Sound Festival, in front of a massive crowd, should have come as no surprise. He told you he was a loser (baby, so why wouldn't you listen?).
The best songs off Wavvves are all anthems of lassitude and smirking self-loathing—songs about being bored ("So Bored"), being broke and lonely ("No Hope Kids"), and having no future ("To the Dregs"), all coasting on blown-out, TV-static guitar riffs and chewed-up bubblegum background vocals whose abrasive production can't obscure their simple catchiness. The overall aesthetics of overdrive, compression, and digital clipping aside, it all worked beautifully on Wavvves, a case of form perfectly fitting content. This was an album about being stuck in your shitty bedroom at your parents' house with nothing but a guitar, an amp, a bag of weed, and your petty demons—and it sounded exactly like that.
On new album King of the Beach, Wavves' sound has grown up rapidly, even while Williams's lyrical sentiments have lagged stubbornly behind. The effect is like a pubescent boy suddenly sprouting a mustache he doesn't know what to do with, or maybe more like a newly licensed teen driving a car he couldn't possibly afford on his own. There's been some careless talk (from Williams) about this album being Wavves' Nevermind, a hilarious conceit on its face, but one that at least the production work, by Dennis Herring (Counting Crows, Modest Mouse, Ben Folds), supports. Clearer heads have compared it to less world-shaking if still commercially successful alt '90s treasures: Green Day's Dookie or the Offspring's Smash.
The weird thing is that, depending on your tolerance for Wavves' 'tude to begin with, the glossy production doesn't hurt it all that much. It's still a punk album in outlook, only with the pop tendencies pushed way to the fore. And if nothing else, the loss of all the digitally crunched-up redlining makes the album an easier listen in terms of purely physiological ear fatigue (if this album and Wavvves run back-to-back in your iTunes library, watch for yourself leaning over to turn down the volume by the time King of the Beach's predecessor hits its second overcompressed song).
King of the Beach starts strong with the title track and "Super Soaker," a sequence that sees the band's typically effortless hooks dressed up with big, chorused, only lightly fuzzed-up guitar bursts and discreet production flourishes (some loud/quiet/loud business on the former, some synth squiggles on the latter). "Linus Spacehead" is a halftime jam led by bass guitar (their "Come as You Are" or "Lithium" perhaps); "When Will You Come" drives yet another nail in the coffin of the Crystals' archetypal "Be My Baby" backbeat, as does a brief break on the chorus of "Baby Say Goodbye." "Take On the World" is a standout track, as catchy as anything the band has done in any iteration.
"Green Eyes" starts like a straight-up, heart-on-sleeve love song ("Green eyes, I'd run away with you") but quickly turns into something more unsure—green eyes as weed paranoia, as envious monsters. "Mickey Mouse" is an excusable foray into loopy, reverberated space that's almost "chillwave"—released well in advance of the album, it turned out to be a diversion more than a signal of Wavves' actual new direction. The clear miss here is "Convertible Balloon"; its pre-chorus, Excitebike rave-up and video-game synth organs annoy at first listen.
Wavvves' most highly evolved emotion was sneering apathy ("You see me/I don't care"). King of the Beach, if not quite living up to the campy boast of its title, at least alternates between the usual performative self-pity and some tentative glimmers of optimism and ambition. The title track is a bratty taunt: "You're never gonna stop me." "Take On the World" turns from Williams complaining, "I hate my music" to musing, hopefully if halfheartedly, "To take on the world would be something."
And what's not to be (kinda) happy about? Williams has a high-profile, lo-fi girlfriend (Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast), he's internet famous, he gets to jam with dudes from Hella and Jay Reatard's backing band. Or, as he sings on the headlong j/k of "Post Acid": "Misery... I'm just having fun with you."
This story has been updated since its original publication.