Identity has been a hot topic surrounding Pale Waves from the band’s very beginning. They had the dark, brooding look of an ‘80s goth act, but a discography full of danceable pop hits. Even while receiving acclaim as the NME Under The Radar Award winner before their debut album’s release, they caught heat from critics for sounding too much like other indie-pop artists. With all of the discourse on the individuality of Pale Waves (or lack thereof), their second album Who Am I? amplifies the qualities that caused fans to label them as the next big thing: a brilliant ability to blend catchy indie pop/rock with witty, yet vulnerable lyrics.
Who Am I? opens with “Change,” a track that trades the ‘80s glam synths of Pale Waves’ debut album My Mind Makes Noises in for a ‘90s-inspired acoustic guitar. The switch-up is perfect for frontwoman Heather Baron-Gracie’s vocal prowess, with the singer’s voice landing somewhere between the pop-with-an-attitude of Avril Lavigne and the raw emotion of The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan. This isn’t to say Pale Waves floats by on the nostalgia factor alone—the band translates their many inspirations into their own brand of indie pop that feels perfectly fit for 2021, with their lyrics bouncing between relationships, identity and mental health.
On an album centered around a question of identity, the band is at their strongest when shouting out the answer. Few songs on the record compare to “You Don’t Own Me” in terms of pure anthemic pop-rock, as Baron-Gracie defiantly asserts, “You don’t own me / and I’ll do whatever I want to” in the face of everyday misogyny.
“She’s My Religion” is a revolutionary step in ownership of identity for both Pale Waves and Baron-Gracie herself, unlike anything they’ve tackled before. Previously, the songwriter’s catalogue felt like flipping through a collection of diary entries or love notes, as every other romantic song was written with the gender-neutral “you.” “She’s My Religion” is instead explicitly about a romantic relationship between two women, a relationship in which each celebrates even the less-desirable qualities of the other: “She’s mad and she will never change / She’s no angel, but she is my religion.”
For all of the ‘90s and Y2K inspiration drawn into Who Am I?, many of the tracks feel solidly grounded in bright, modern-day indie pop. As was the case on My Mind Makes Noises, it’s easy to hear the influence of Pale Waves’ friends and labelmates The 1975 on tracks like “Easy” and “Wish U Were Here,” which would feel sonically at home next to The 1975’s early work like “Girls” or “Settle Down.” While the pop-heavy sound works well for the band, it’s not the quality that sets them apart from the heavily saturated crowd of British indie rockers.
Pale Waves excels at making the personal feel relatable on “Run To” and “Tomorrow.” While “Run To” is told from Baron-Gracie’s perspective and “Tomorrow” is a collection of stories from others, both songs take an optimistic view of the growing pains that arrive with coming of age as an outcast. With catchy and relatable one-liners like “sexuality isn’t a choice” and “everything is going well / except my mental health,” the band reaches through their past of stifling small towns and feelings of hopelessness to uplift fans who know their feelings all too well.
Just as My Mind Makes Noises closes with “Karl (I Wonder What It’s Like To Die),” Who Am I? finishes with another gorgeously understated and powerfully personal song, the title track. On an album that is often boisterously optimistic, “Who Am I?” reminds us that it takes work to reach that place. Written by Baron-Gracie at the start of 2020, the song is an honest look at an ongoing struggle with mental health, and the feelings of isolation and anxiety that arrive with it. It’s a beautiful and sobering way to end the album.
On their sophomore album, Pale Waves comes into their own with a whole new level of confidence. While Baron-Gracie wore her sexuality on her sleeve lyrically, drummer Ciara Doran took to Twitter to come out as transgender/nonbinary days before the album’s release. These personal strides are reflected in the band’s musicality as they take on a greater variety of sounds between each song. Where tracks on My Mind Makes Noises had a tendency to blend together, Who Am I? flows without becoming repetitive. Winding between melancholy ballads, poignant love songs and screamable rock anthems, the album displays a range and skill that make Pale Waves a force to be reckoned with.
Carli Scolforo is a New England journalist and intern for Paste Magazine. She loves late-night TV and reading celebrity memoirs, and never truly left her emo phase. You can follow her on Twitter @carli_sco.