Wavves: Just a Sucker with No Self-Esteem
On Nathan Williams and the King of the Beach LP
Today I revisited the California mall-punk band Offspring’s Smash LP. This thing came out in 1994 and, riding the coattails of grunge, sold over three million in the US and two million in Australia. It had “Self Esteem” and “Come Out And Play”, also known as “Keep ‘Em Separated” in like a “Baba O’Riley”/”Teenage Wasteland” kind of way. I remember finally getting my hands on a copy just a week before the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995, and later watching a friend’s father try to snap it in half at his son’s first boy-girl birthday party.
This was strictly a work-related venture vis a vis the new Wavves album, which I’ll explain in a second. But what you should know upfront is this:
I am of a generation of recreational rock critics who believe guitars almost always sound better when played through chorus effect. When I first heard King of the Beach, the Cali lo-fi punk act Wavves‘s wildly celebrated new album, I admit to being short-circuited. This was what rock music felt like when I was 13 and regularly practiced stage dives onto my bedroom mattress. The record had been tracked by an actual engineer in an actual studio, produced by an actual producer, and performed by an actually competent backing band — just like an “actual-fi” or “fi-fi” rock record from back in the day.
Wavves, a/k/a Nathan Williams, told The Fader he thought Beach might be his Nevermind, a polished follow-up for a larger audience. The record would prove that his songwriting could “handle” professional quality production. In addition to grunge, the record has sunny pop songs that borrow moves from ’60s girl-group music and ’00s “future-primitive” indie rock that itself borrows moves from ’60s girl-group music. The producer, Dennis Herring, knew which frequencies to pull down when equalizing Williams’s nasally voice, and apparently refused to remedy Williams’s bad takes with distortion and reverb. Instead, Herring demanded better performances. The record took them three months to make and — perhaps benefiting from the contrast to Wavves’s unlistenable previous albums and the leagues of lo-fi charlatans out there for whom music exists mostly as a mating ritual — it does sound like someone in the room actually cared that his name was on the sleeve this time.
My guess is you don’t want to be dragged through the musicological reasons why I find these songs so unsatisfying, how they’re lacking in anything that remotely resembles swagger. Really it doesn’t take much to become King of The Beach, or whatever shorthand we’re using here to describe the rash of solipsistic slacker internet type bands who are ‘bored’ and ‘remember slap bracelets’ and ‘don’t give a shit’ and ‘hate themselves but who’s to blame’, as if mea culpa ever counts for self-awareness.
Instead let’s talk about the persona of Nathan Williams, a 24-year-old man whose lyrics move from teenage fantasy (“you’re never gonna stop me!”) to pre-teen rebellion (“I could say I’m sorry… but it wouldn’t mean shit!”) to a kind of infantile neediness (“I never wanna leave home, Everything in the back of my brain/ told me that I would be sick/ when I’m out there”). These are tough themes to pull off but they’ve been pulled off before, if only because there’s a difference between directness and artlessness. There’s also a difference between self-loathing, which Williams thinks he’s up to, versus self-pity, which is all I’m hearing. Here is a 24-year-old man who sings with a straight face, “Misery, will you comfort me in my time of need?” A 24-year-old man who fundamentally misunderstands what made fellow lowlife Kurt Cobain so great — not the navel-gazing, but the umbilical noose.
It’s the same sort of vapid I felt re-listening to Offspring. “Self-Esteem” was so desperate to tap into “Teen Spirit” that it couldn’t help itself from stealing the riff’s very rhythm. This was second-rate grunge/punk fifteen years ago — and yet everything about “Smash” is less irksome to me than Williams’s borrowed nostalgia. The progressions are smarter, the lyrics are wryer, the record itself was better produced, which is supposed to be Wavves’ ace in the hole here. Who knows how this piece would have turned out if I had remembered Silverchair in time!
Anyway, the more you suffer, the more it shows you really care, right? If people want to pretend like they’re 13 years old again and break into the neighbor’s pool to the sweet sound of “Post Acid”, fine by me. I patiently await a band that pillages the part of late ’80s/early ’90s rock that wasn’t the self-absorbed binky rock that made me cringe even then.