Some artists might mature, but you never really want them to grow up. Alternative radio is practically held together by these human hinges—eternal adolescents like Billie Joe Armstrong, who incorporates a t-shirt cannon into performances and has penned a broadway musical, or Dave Grohl, who seems to seek out opportunities where he can dress like a woman for laughs but also gave the SXSW keynote address. These musicians are lovable to many in part because they have remained the children we first met when we were young, and Nathan Williams of Wavves is finding himself on that same party boat, very capable of growing up beyond his Bart-Simpson-in-need-of-Paxil persona. It’s just hard to imagine him getting through a cruise on Lake Minnetonka without going below deck for a private dance.
So when chatter began about Afraid of Heights, Wavves’ fourth full-length and first for Mom+Pop/Warner, the picture painted was of a more mature and insightful Williams, now recording with a steady collaborator in Stephen Pope. There was as much intrigue as concern in this revelation. These rumors were not fabricated, but, a mature Wavves is misleading. Yes, Afraid of Heights sees mid-tempo songs become commonplace and focus placed more on harmonies and samples and textures. But, don’t mistake his musical palette refining with emotional maturity. The Williams in the lyrics is very much the big kid he’s always been, making for a smooth transition that seems like a natural progression.
The album is split up between the predictable pop-punk energizers that made 2010’s King of the Beach a pleasure, and a new avenue of slower, resolute tracks that lean on their lyrics. Williams, though, is not exactly a belletrist, nor does he try to be, and the words do function, proving to be revealing, dark and honest. Williams has said that he drank heavily during the creation of this album, and the music supports that.
Williams, it would also seem, has trouble expressing in his own terms the central paranoia that the album engages, so he makes an interesting leap by repurposing ideas of his heroes. “Dog” plays off The Stooges, keeping on the safe side of homage, while the title track is lifted as a retrospective of Kurt Cobain’s imagery and words, recalling “Lithium,” “Dumb,” “Drain You” and “Polly” all at once. By looking to these pillars of his musical consciousness, it’s bold to ape lines from Nirvana and then claim “I’ll always be on my own, fucked and alone, low.” The song is likely a dealbreaker for some. Those on the fence should look to the audacious octave change that comes in the chorus. Williams is not a great singer, but he seems all the better for the risks he’s taking.
Williams has hinted that there might be a linear story to Afraid of Heights, and with the closing “I Can’t Dream” describing being medicated or lobotomized or possibly dead, it’s not a stretch to see Wavves aiming for a smaller-scale stroke of grandeur to that recently undertaken by his friend, Fucked Up’s Damian Abraham, on his own concept album David Comes to Life. And, to Williams’ credit, if this is the concept, it’s not heavy-handed enough to distract from the songs’ individuality. Likewise, Williams just isn’t a captivating enough lyricist to make the theme a strength, as even these telling moments come across as a teenage brother dealing with the isolation and loneliness that comes with being young—valid feelings, but ones he needs to deal with.
Where Williams is a talent is in his composition, and, for the first time, in his pacing. “Demon to Lean On” could have been a mid-’90s Hole song, but placed early in the album and after “Sail to the Sun”—which limps out of the gate as “King of the Beach 2”—the song keeps the audience on its toes and forecasts the ensuing album as a departure. Pacing has never really been a discussion with Wavves, because Williams rarely leaves fourth gear, and Afraid of Heights manages to reduce the tempo frequently without reading as sluggish. Say what you want about Nathan Williams, but between his original home recordings and this album, which was made without any label involvement, the guy has the taste level to be a rare case of DIY artist who appeals to a wide audience.
On “Cop,” Wavves manage to rope in the album’s opposing sides and marry them, resulting in the most, well, sonically “mature” song that Nathan Williams has written. Sliding from an acoustic bounce to a trotting verse, and backed with hooky whistling and a lo-fi remoteness that puts him in the territory of fellow Burger Records associate Ty Segall, “Cop” lands at a bridge that builds into something massive and complex, containing elements of delicacy and power and chemistry that the band hasn’t really hinted at previously. For maybe 30 seconds, Wavves show that they really can mature and it may mean sounding like a different project. But, Nathan Williams coming of age as a songwriter might prove worth it, as we have plenty of rock and roll clowns as is.