Nathan Williams’ sophomore album, released in 2009 under the moniker Wavves, seemed to approximate our shattered notion of “indie”: a computer-aided record cobbled together in a garden shed with next to no production values. The blogosphere — and crucially, independent label Fat Possum — went silly over this gutsy display of lo-fi DIY, particularly for its revelation that Williams was actually no ramshackle poseur, but a semi-talented artist for whom catchy pop hooks and mastery of the multi-track are part and parcel. Moreover, Wavves proved a welcome antidote to an “indie” scene gutted by the deluge of vacuous ’80s electro-pop imitators.
His Jesus and the Mary Chain-like tumult infiltrated the jaunty air of ’60s optimism in honour of our indefatigable fascination with the fabled dystopia of West Coast suburbia. This tapping into the zeitgeist, however, proved too much for the young Williams; at 22, he seemed to be headed for career suicide in a much-chronicled onstage meltdown, followed by tour cancellations and a period of MIA.
Being no real depressive slacker, though, Williams used his absenteeism to write his third album King of the Beach. It shows some bruising from the ignominious events of 2009, but it otherwise remains a picture of him as a punk layabout, disillusioned with a life that seems about as worthwhile as a misshapen surfboard. This lackadaisical and fateful image of himself is belied, of course, by his tie-up with producer Dennis Herring (of Modest Mouse fame) and the superb rhythm section of the late Jay Reatard.
By coming in from the cold, Williams not only kiboshed his DIY ethic, but also showed himself to be a little more fastidious about his song-writing. Albums past were celebrated for being laden in reverb and distortion — a ploy used to neutralize technical inadequacies as much as an aesthetic choice. King of the Beach tells it almost straight, and the pressure of exposure as well as an excellent backing band has resulted in meatier songs that are compositionally more knowing and experimentally more daring than anything Williams has produced before. Moreover, the album not only remains securely in the “scene” with its love affair for old-school recording and Brian Wilson, but its visceral freneticism seems to anticipate the second wave of grunge, if and when it comes.
The title song has the kind of thrilling jangling propulsion peddled by the Ramones, while “Super Soaker” whistles and bangs at a relentless pace and still manages to reveal a flash of pop brilliance. Both “Take on the World”, despite its lamentable content (see below), and “Linus Space” are examples of that deliciously ironic combination of ’60s sunshine pop and the roaring engine present in a solid slice of grunge.
“When Will You Come” drips with fey innocence in a heavenly ode to Pet Sounds while album closer “Baby Say Goodbye” sounds like the Beach Boys in a shindig with the Shangri-Las. It’s at the heart of the album, though, where Williams’ light-hearted whimsicality is fully unleashed. On “Baseball Cards”, Williams sounds as if he’s chewing acid and bubblegum in the same mouthful while he also gargles mouthwash. “Convertible Balloon” is a stupendous case of baby-talk vaudeville that nevertheless chimes well with the general ’60s vibe.
Content-wise, Williams storms through the ennui wafting from a life of material comfort and too many sunlit hours. Possibly out of disenchantment with all that blogospheric snark hurled his way post-breakdown, the artist opens the album in glee when he finds the seeds of his own liberation/destruction in the environment he knows best: “Let the sun burn my eyes, let it burn my back, let it sear through my thighs, I’ll feel wide, wide open,” followed by the tongue-stuck-out sneer: “You’re never going to stop me”.
This sort of nihilistic defiance surfaces over and over, as when Williams intones on “Idiot”: “Laugh, I bet you laugh right behind my back/I won’t ever die/I’ll go surfing in my mind”; or when he plays the inevitable obstinate loser card on “Green Eyes”: “My own friends hate my guts/so what?” In an infantile way, these songs are thrilling for lodging a middle finger at those who thought Wavves was as good as a beached whale. So it’s a shame he let it all dissolve in the fug of self-hatred on “Take on the World”. At best the song is pity-mongering, gratuitous and self-serving.
Worse, when he’s not the centre of his songs, Williams concerns himself with trivialities about the sun, surfing and… carrying a balloon in a convertible (“Convertible Balloon”). The two-word chorus of “Post Acid”, which is about having fun “with you”, is otherwise devoid of content. Again, one wonders whether this lyrical poverty was designed by Williams — lest we forget his inner loafer — to counteract his investment in improving his musicianship and the quality of his recordings; or whether this loafer business is just another fig leaf to disguise some very real shortcomings.
Having said that, the obvious danger for Wavves is that obsoletism is built into his career DNA. From the outmoded recording techniques to his place in a scene whose roots are about as solid as a passing cloud, Williams risks self-parody if he comes back in a year similarly constituted. Yet any form of reinvention in line with the next “big thing” probably won’t augur too well with the fan base. Perhaps another period spent in oblivion is just what Williams needs to figure out his next move, or rather, his next image.