The talking points of Nathan Williams’s story since the inception of his Wavves project have often overshadowed the body of work itself. Tales of his humble, slacker beginnings in a San Diego tool shed to a drug-addled emotional breakdown, bar fights with veteran gatekeepers of the scene, frequent band turnover and a relationship with his beach-loving female counterpart dominated the headlines over his first couple of years. But amidst the gossip, Williams recorded two early albums that received significant praise from many, and corresponding backlash from others, that earned him a “next big thing” tag. And to his credit, these works were some of the primary players in what became a year characterized by the no-fi, bedroom-pop recordings he championed.
Adding former Jay Reatard bassist Stephen Pope to the mix, King Of The Beach sounded like the natural progression from those skuzzy origins, given the tools of an actual studio and production team. It was apparently the constraints and interference of those amenities though that pushed Williams to pay out of his own pocket for the Afraid Of Heights sessions in search of the freedom to make an album precisely as he intended. The result, however, is a record caught between the charming, instinctual flaws of his self-titled works and the direction of King Of The Beach. Still branded with his punchy, pop-punk melodies, as well as venturing back to the fuzzier roots in several instances, the real issue with Afraid Of Heights is a lack of constraint.
On the album’s first single, “Demon To Lean On,” Williams explores heavier considerations and winks at the demonic theme found on his 2009 breakout album. “Beach Demon” and “Weed Demon,” intentionally messy and not profound, dealt more with the fiends that arise from an afternoon high than anything deeply emotional. On this latest installment, those demons have graduated into full-fledged paranoia over real-life issues of love, hurt and loss, with Williams singing, “The truth is that it hurts and what’s it really worth? No hope and no future.” Just as the group’s name is a tribute to Williams’s fear of the ocean, “Afraid Of Heights” is another example of anxiety over uncontrollable terrors, whether it’s drowning or being a lifelong loner, that informs Wavves’ music. “Paranoid” serves as the declaration of exactly that, albeit with more punk pace and conciseness, combining with the previous two to create the crux of Wavves’ fourth full-length.
An example of the governance exercised on King Of The Beach for the better is that album’s second-half track “Mickey Mouse.” When originally released as a demo mp3, the song rang in at an unnecessary five and a half minutes. For a piece that mostly plays its hand within the first 60 seconds, the length exacerbated an idea. By the time the album was released, it had been cut down nearly two minutes and made for a better listen. It’s the absence of those cutting-room decisions that hurts Afraid Of Heights most. The Animal Collective-indebted “Everything Is My Fault” and closer “I Can’t Dream” are both cases of songs with valuable pieces but whose indulgent lengths dilute them and add to frustratingly drawn-out listens.
“That’s On Me” is a brighter example of Williams working with producer John Hill to expand the band’s sound beyond the slacker beach punk and into something closer to grunge. “Sail To The Sun,” “Lunge Forward” and “Gimme A Knife” also do their part to capture the sun-drenched, bored and brash Wavves we’ve come to know. It’s possible though that with younger, grittier party punks like FIDLAR as label and tourmates, Williams is just satisfied to be growing up and into his elder beach-keeper role.