Pale Waves - Who Am I?

8 December 2021  •  Filed under

From 80s goth-pop to pop-punk. That's quite a change. (Photo: Jenn Five for NME)

I’ve been sitting on this article for a while now, thinking I wasn’t going to publish anything else about this band, especially after gushing like a teenager about their first album. But here we are.

Honestly, there was no chance that this album was going to stack up to the first (2018’s My Mind Makes Noises). Still, I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I can’t help but feel a real sense of disappointment about the band’s total departure from the 80s-inspired sound of their EP and debut album. Shifting influences from the likes of The Cure and The Primitives to pop-punk and early 2000s singer/songwriters like Avril Lavigne and Michelle Branch is radical, to say the least. This sounds nothing like My Mind Makes Noises.

On the other hand, I generally like artists that refuse to put out the same album year after year. The days of placing an artist into one easily-definable box for their entire career is long over, and time inevitably changes us whether we like it or not. Pivots are unavoidable. The truth is, Who Am I? has some really good songs, and even some that manage to escape the overt Avril homage.

This is a big change. But that’s what this album is all about.

Who Am I? has been out for almost a year now, and I’ve had plenty of time to think about it. As bummed as I am about the abrupt stylistic shift, I clearly remember my twenties; when you’re young, the days are longer, and a lot more growth happens in a shorter amount of time. It’s tempting to look at the roughly three-year gap between the band’s first recorded material and this second album and grumble that nothing should change so dramatically in so narrow a window. But that’s exactly what it means to be young, and—honestly—4 years is an eternity to a twentysomething. Those years are a time to try on styles—sometimes suddenly and drastically—and figure out who we are. Let us never speak of my nu-metal phase.

And there’s been a lot of change for this band. They’ve traveled the world, attracting a devoted fanbase and having success and experiences that few people can relate to. They also endured a tour bus crash in early 2020 that surely served as a harrowing wake-up call. Ciàra (producer, songwriter, & drummer) finally came out as trans/non-binary and started treatments and surgery. That’s huge. Heather (songwriter, vocalist, & lyricist) fell in love, and realized that she had a lot to say—that as an openly gay artist, there were things she could do through music that could help others struggling with their identity, and become a hopeful standard to rally around.

Who Am I? is the antithesis of My Mind Makes Noises in nearly every way.

My Mind Makes Noises—as brilliant as I may think it is—definitely follows a very specific aesthetic. I’ve read in interviews that Heather felt like that sound no longer reflected who she was, and the band needed to evolve. Not that major life changes couldn’t be expressed with an 80s pop aesthetic, but it does make sense that feeling so differently as a person would translate into something that also sounds musically different. That desire broke up the foundational songwriting partnership between her and Ciàra, because the new songs they’d been writing together sounded like a continuation of the first album. Heather went off to write with a handful of producers in L.A. That must have been a hard decision to make.

All of this brings us to the result of such consequential changes. Who Am I? is the antithesis of My Mind Makes Noises in nearly every way. Heather’s voice has absolutely bloomed over the years, and demands a larger stage. Instead of tight, densely-layered, synth-heavy production, there’s a looser, organic, acoustic guitar-rooted sound. In place of bittersweet tales of desire, longing, and loss, we get actual love songs, messages of self-acceptance and affirmation, and declarations of identity and inner strength. And, sure, there is still some angst in there, but the overall theme is one of positive, personal transformation.

For me, “Easy” is the best song of the bunch, a straight-up heart-melting masterpiece of a love song. The acoustic guitar verses give way to a pulsing, blissed-out chorus that probably best bridges the sounds of the the two albums. But more than the blended sound, I love the sentiment; it bottles that feeling of connecting with someone so deeply and easily that you can’t imagine how you lived without them. “I Just Needed You” comes to the realization that there is no success or possession that can replace love. “Odd Ones Out” fights for love despite the specter of failure. “She’s My Religion” recognizes the flaws in her partner, but also doesn’t care; love embraces everything about the other. There’s a newfound sweetness in many of these songs. In a way, this album is a diary of falling in love.

Awww. See? Pretty positive vibes from start to end.

Well, almost. The album’s namesake song closes out the tracklist, but this is clearly where it all begins. It’s a curious choice to name the album after the lowest, most anguished track. “Who Am I?”—the song—is a heart-rending cry for help that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the album. It’s easily the most powerful song, though. Haven’t we all asked ourselves this question at one time or another? It’s a doorway to the most private and protected parts of ourselves, and is often asked in the depths of struggle. Anyone asking this question should expect to answer this song with tears.

There is plenty to like about this collection of songs, to be sure. The more time I give it, the more it sinks in. It’s unfair to compare, but hard to avoid: that first album—the style, the sentiment, the timing, the callback to my youth—will always be special to me, and impossible to replicate. But the genre-shock is wearing off a bit, and I’m looking at the new material with more appreciation.

So, mixed feelings. Maybe I’m just getting softer as I grow older, but—despite all I’ve said that may indicate the contrary—it’s heartwarming to listen to this album reveal another human being’s arrival at such a clear-eyed sense of self. And there are a fair number of songs that connect, despite the crosswise musical style from the first album. Heather’s knack for telegraphing her emotions is as strong as ever, and that remains the core identity & appeal of Pale Waves.

“Who am I?” she asks.

She seems happy. Isn’t that a good start?


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© Jared Christensen

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