A week ago, I was ready to write off Pale Waves for good. Now I’m not so sure.
I fell in love hard with what I’ll call Pale Waves’ “pre-pandemic era”—an EP and album full of lush, shimmering, Cure-adjacent gloom-pop—so following the band’s self-described “pop punk” transformation has been a ride, y’all.
It’s fair for anyone who’s significantly invested in a band to be cautious when it goes in a new direction. Even though last year’s Who Am I? had its moments, and I could understand what was driving the genre shift, most of that music wasn’t doing much for me. So, I thought that was it. I was just going to be thankful for the older music and peace out.
At the same time, I think Pale Waves generally write good pop songs, so a sliver of curiosity remained about what they were doing next. As the singles dropped ahead of Unwanted’s release, I couldn’t resist just taking a casual peek at each one to hear what the new stuff was gonna sound like. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to like it, though.
I cannot emphasize how much I didn’t expect to be pulled this hard.
Much to my surprise, I like this album a whole lot, and so much more than I thought possible. It’s catchy as hell, and it’s clear they had fun making it. Unwanted pushes further into the territory mapped out on last year’s pandemic-plagued Who Am I?, but—unlike that album, which is a bit all over the place and should probably be thought of as a Heather Baron-Gracie solo album—Unwanted sounds purposeful, nostalgic, loud, cheeky, modern, super-glossy, and even-keeled, serving up a steady aesthetic and a lot of variety. It may have that punchy pop punk production sound, but it’s a lot more varied than simple “pop punk”. No genre is a monolith; I definitely hear pop punk, but I hear a lot of other 2000s-era styles, too. Pop, indie, rock, & emo influences a la Michelle Branch, Jimmy Eat World, My Chemical Romance, and Paramore are easy to pick out. Unsurprising for a band that adores Avril Lavigne, a good chunk of the album sounds a lot like the straightforward pop-rock side of her catalog—More “Mobile” or “Complicated” and less “Girlfriend” or “My World”, if you know what I mean—and that’s a great side to land on.
Lyrically, Unwanted is a mixed bag. Overall, the themes are much darker than Who Am I?, and printed right there on the tin: lies, jealously, rejection, vanity, loneliness, etc. And that’s fine—mining those veins can yield really powerful results, as the band’s first album can attest to. However, some of Unwanted’s lyrics and their delivery come off as unfortunately immature in some cases, and earnest in others, an uneven quality carried forward from the last album. “Lies” is a good example; it comes across as one-dimensional and pouty rather than something more substantial. Maybe that’s the whole point? A shallow approach to what is basically a kiss-off song? Anyways, it knocks an otherwise cool song down a few pegs.
Then there are songs like “The Hard Way”, which is one of my favorites; simple acoustic guitar & vocals recount an intimate, pensive story of witnessing a schoolmate repeatedly bullied, but not stepping in to help. It’s got a really interesting song structure and vocal melody, full of introspection and that early-era emo vibe that really hits me in the feels. The very end of the song marches into a drum-tastic expression of remorse and pain, which is both unexpected and makes the song feel like it’s bursting into tears. Chef’s kiss.
“Reasons To Live” was the second single and became an immediate, though unexpected, favorite. I’ve recently learned of the term “sad banger”—used to describe songs with energetic, upbeat music paired with sad or dark lyrics—and that pretty accurately describes so much of my musical taste, including this song. It’s a simple, chunky-guitar rhythm with a thundering uplift of a chorus that was stuck in my head for weeks and gave me hope that—even though this song does sound as pop punk as it gets—the album wasn’t going to lean entirely into the cringey side of that genre.
“Clean” honestly should have been the first single; I think it better represents the album than “Lies”. It’s a darkly sweet, melodic, and uplifting love song—the successor to “She’s My Religion”. Depending on the day, it may beat out “The Hard Way” as my favorite off the album, but—and I never thought I would be saying this—it’s hard to pick just one right now. Despite my preceding complaints, I cannot emphasize how much I didn’t expect to be pulled this hard.
In a nutshell, Unwanted is really pretty good, leveling up the musical consistency and production quality from the last album and leaning into the band’s pop side with catchy tunes, a lot of energy, and a new list of inspirations worn on their sleeve. It also carries forward a bit of the cringe and mixed lyrical quality from Who Am I? as well. Like the last record, it’s also kind of a tribute album. It sounds like the band is still trying to find their own voice.
Who knows if I’d be listening to this if I hadn’t already been a fan of their older stuff. It’s hard to say. I’m playing the hell out of it now, though, and really getting a kick out of it. I may even go queue up some old Paramore and Avril for later. 🙌