The story as we know it: Nathan Williams, surfer/guitarist extraordinaire, records some songs in his bedroom and releases them under the (joke?) moniker Wavves. People like the record — maybe too many people, and too fast. He quickly goes from being an at-home wunkerkind to a blog and festival regular, popping up whenever he does a thing: fucking up at Primavera Sound Festival, getting in a fight with the Black Lips, admitting he’s an alcoholic, and so forth. A one-man indie-rock US Weekly, and he doesn’t even have to try. Along the way, he’s picked out as the head of the lo-fi, low-cares indie movement and starts to face the dreaded backlash. Maybe he’s an avatar for people who hate “hipsters” to project their hatred onto with his flannel, his whining, his bad haircut. Maybe the dislike is because his songs just aren’t that good. As in, Did you hear the ‘90s? Or the early ’00s? Or any lo-fi band in Nashville/Chicago/pick a place? The things people could be listening to instead…
It all built up into King of the Beach, one of the most controversial releases this year (but if it ever comes up at a party when it’s not playing, run away!), a see-saw of discourse between notions of punk authenticity, aped aesthetics and sonic originality. The record finds Williams backed by the late Jay Reatard’s ex-rhythm section, produced by Dennis Herring (who manned albums by Modest Mouse, the Hives and Elvis Costello), and sounding a lot more put together. You can hear some of the lyrics, though some are still incomprehensible, and the distortion dial has been turned down, though not by too much. The album’s about being depressed, smoking weed, having fun, not understanding girls. You know, the moments that define any summer.
Songs such as the title track, “Post Acid,” and “Take On The World” pinpoint the affected apathy this record is about: the challenges of having all the options in the world and the lack of motivation to follow through on any of them. After all the success he’s had in the last year, a line like “I still hate my music/ It’s all the same,” delivered with his trademark sneery alt-rock whine, comes off as mighty depressing or spectacularly entitled, depending on how you see it. He’s “just having fun,” like he sings on “Post Acid,” seizing his destiny without really seizing it. Whatever’s good, right? The production is less jagged, but the drums sometimes sound like trash cans and his voice is still tinny coming out of the speakers. It’s not a nourishing album, something to fill you up; it’s more about mood and energy, and Williams corrals a lot of that jittery energy into these catchy songs. But jeez, if he feels this bad, then why’s the music so happy?
When the band gets darker, moving away from surf and garage to drone and post-punk, the sonic textures finally match Williams’s despondence. The looped downer fuzz of “Baseball Cards” drops you right into the burned-out lair of the stoner, while Williams’s best bleat comes on the sparse “Green Eyes,” where he laments, “My own friends hate me/ But I don’t give a shit.” Similar sentiments as before, maybe it’s the standard slow sad song on every album, the one that gets your sympathy. Cynicism aside, though, it’s a touching number.
Limpid coos open up “Linus Spacehead,” as a bass thrum paces the cry of, “I’m stuck in the sky/ I’m never coming down,” sounding exactly like the type of song you wouldn’t want to hear if you were stoned. (How much of a downer do you think this record was to make?) If this is an album about being depressed, it’s a lot more believable when the music actually sounds depressed. Matching the beatdown pathos with snappy surf-rock music makes a better party, but it doesn’t sound as real as the slower, darker cuts that are interspersed throughout King of the Beach.
But that’s the trade-off of making a poppy record — unlike, say, Titus Andronicus’s The Monitor, which didn’t attempt to disguise its darkness with sunny melodies or conveniently catchy riffs. It just let all the bad feelings simmer in a mixture of song structures. That record won accolades as being emotionally honest, but could you have as much fun with it? And isn’t that the point of the beach and the summer? Cliché as it may be to make a “summer” song or describe anything as having the “sound of summer,” but an album title like King of the Beach isn’t subtle with its intentions. You’re supposed to blast this thing and jump around while listening to it.
Basically, enjoying this record comes down to whether or not you can get over what Wavves represents as a band, what Nathan Williams has said and done in the last year. Williams remains as skilled as ever at taking a cheap hook and spinning it into something that’ll stick in your brain for days, cordoned off by whiplash guitar lines and knee-slapping drum breaks. Whether or not it matters that he can still probably be something of a prick depends on the connection you’re looking to forge with the artist. King of the Beach gets a lot stronger when Williams tip-toes into murkier emotional territory deeper than the cocky slacker vibe he usually inhabits. The absence of a vociferous hype machine might let the paucity of concepts on the record appear more obvious, but it rewards with its occasional trips to the abyss.