“I’ll always be on my own / F**ked and alone” laments Nathan Williams on the title track of Wavves’ fourth studio album Afraid of Heights. Throughout the album, the mood doesn’t change much. Actually, it’s pretty standard fare for a band that has built a reputation on internal turmoil, personnel changes, and self-loathing lyricism set against a musical backdrop combining the pop-punk sensibilities of Green Day with the dark grunge of Nirvana—throwing in their own lo-fi surf rock signature sound for good measure.
Wavves is a textbook example of one of those bands that experienced too much success too soon, and has since spent their entire career trying in vain to live up to the hype. Due in part to the pressure set up by these expectations, the band is perhaps better known these days for Williams’ public onstage breakdown in 2009 than for the music they have made since. And that’s unfortunate, because Wavves is actually quite a good band, and Afraid Of Heights at least comes closer to the nearly-impossible bar set for them than their prior work does.
Predictably, this album reflects a maturing of Wavves’ sound. All the raw, lo-fi elements are there, along with the passion and angst—it’s just more focused and controlled, perhaps thanks to a year spent in the studio making the album. Some critics might consider this to be an unwanted “taming” of the band’s sound; for me, I think focus is just the ticket for this band in particular. While the track list seems a little erratic in its direction at times, Williams has managed to hone the record’s overall sound, adding just enough structure to weed out unwanted chaos while preserving the raw emotion and garage-rock vibe that Wavves is known for. So when those deep, buzzy guitars are held back just a bit and then open up in the chorus, it has a lot more impact than if they were allowed to wail erratically throughout.
So the real question here is: by what standard do you measure Afraid Of Heights? If you measure it against the initial peak of expectation that Wavves generated at the outset of their career, it will still probably come up short. But if you measure it against their entire body of work, you’ll probably see, as I have, that this is their most mature album to date.