The verdict on the Manchester band's second album. Josh Robinson explains why - despite its cliches - it's still an enjoyable record.
Pale Waves’ first ever single ‘There’s a Honey’ made me sit up and take notice. It was an upbeat, indie-pop banger released in early 2017. It was shortly followed by a similarly addictive standout single ‘Television Romance’. These both featured on their debut album My Mind Makes Noises, which was released much later in September 2018. In fairness, there was a decent four-song EP in between the early singles and this album as well.
My Mind Makes Noises was a solid debut which felt a bit bloated with 14 songs lasting 50 minutes – especially when two of the tracks had already been around for well over a year. I didn’t find myself being drawn back into many re-listens of the record. I think a few too many songs sounded samey and a bit throwaway – an impression that was affirmed when I saw them live supporting Dirty Hit* labelmates The 1975 a few years ago. They were alright but it felt like they were going through the motions a little on stage. Who knows, maybe this was down to touring fatigue, personal issues or the preceding hectic year or two that saw them breakthrough as a cult indie band.
*Just as an FYI, Dirty Hit are my favourite label. They have a growing list of young, exciting artists such as Beabadoobee & BLACKSTARKIDS, along with established acts like Wolf Alice and the aforementioned The 1975.
Pale Waves, a Manchester band fronted by Heather Baron-Gracie, released their second album Who Am I? on 12th February 2021. Going into hearing it, I was hopeful that they would continue their output of catchy hooks and glittery guitars whilst treading some new ground and changing it up a bit. Some of their praise and criticism has been the same thing - a proclivity to stick to their early sound and not waver too much.
I was playing Football Manager 2021 whilst I gave Who Am I? my first listen and I was a bit underwhelmed with it. In fairness, I think my poor run of form with Blackburn Rovers on the game affected my mood and therefore my acceptance of new music. I was also a bit tired, so in hindsight it was an unfair time to give it a go.
On my second run-through, it was the morning and I was cleaning my flat. I was more receptive to fresh songs and I really enjoyed it. I again liked it on my third listen, which was in the bathroom when I showered, and indeed my other experiences with it since then too. The reason I mention these details are that my opinions on a new album were more fluid and contradicting than usual. It also reminded me how your mood and environment can influence what you think of art. Overall, my view of it has become balanced and I now think it is simply a very solid second showing. Okay, I’ll tell you why, shall I?
Weighing in at 34 minutes, the album opens with ‘Change’ which is a pleasant curtain-raiser. It has an acoustic heartbeat and has a feel to it that reminded me of some of Taylor Swift’s recent folky exploits. ‘Fall To Pieces’ backs up the good start and shows that the band are maturing. Heather controls her vocals nicely and the catchy chorus does linger in your head.
‘She’s My Religion’ is, as it stands, my favourite track on the album. It is trademark Pale Waves with moreish electric guitar creating an addictive indie number. The frustrating thing from my perspective is that the following track ‘Easy’ halts the momentum as I believe it to be the weakest song. On this one, the vocals move into irritating territory with a moany tone. It could be described as an Avril Lavigne parody and at best could be called a middle of the road noughties throwback.
Thankfully, authenticity returns with “Wish U Were Here” playing home to sincere lyrics with a jingly melody. There is an attention to detail that is almost tangible on this one with instrumental layers in the production that can often be missing in some modern alternative music. I also love the next song, ‘Tomorrow’ as it throws caution to the wind with a rocky urgency. It feels very British sonically and the lyrics are honest, with Heather giving comforting advice on specific people’s lives: “Ben I know that you love a boy. Sexuality isn’t a choice. Don’t let anyone say it’s wrong.”
Track seven ‘You Don’t Own Me’ proves that the strength of this record lies mainly in its middle. Heather’s personal lyrics continue with this one, her words carrying a purpose of being a middle finger to anyone who tells her what to do or how she should act. This is clear in the opening verse where she appears to underline society’s view on women in the industry: “You better cross your legs ‘cause that’s not lady like.” ‘I Just Needed You’ is a very easy listen with decent production. A soothing chorus is the standout part.
‘Odd Ones Out’ is mid-tempo is a pleasant, earnest song but perhaps a little forgettable. The message of the song is essentially, as the title suggests, one about being a misfit. In the chorus, Heather appears to be telling her partner or friend that she is an outsider too so it’s fine. ‘Run To’ is more of a toe-tapper and is another one of my favourites. It has a varied pace, starting fast but slowing down in the pre-chorus. Heather’s high pitch vocals are impressive here and the lyrics are considered and sometimes ironic: “Hey, life is going well. Except my mental health.”
The title track ‘Who Am I?’ is as soul-searching as you would expect from its name, especially with it being the closer too. There is some lovely piano at the start, and it is a sad, musing song about having an identity crisis. It explores how it feels to be struggling mentally: “I’m having a hard time. I feel trapped, I feel obliged.” I like a song that explores darker emotions in a simple way, so I rated this one.
Who Am I? feels like the sophomore album that it is. By that I mean that as I mentioned earlier, I was expecting a maturing record that still played fairly safe to the formula that worked well on their debut. It has an anxiety to it – which is often present on second albums where bands are negotiating the increased weight of expectation on them – that I believe their fanbase will enjoy.
Some of the chorus lyrics feel a bit obvious, or cliched but the real value throughout this project comes in the unflinching honesty in several of the verses. This is where nuggets of gold can be found with pithy phrases about relationships, social comment and a good balance of playful and serious lines.
Heather’s voice is a huge plus, too. She shows off her range more than she has previously, displaying a versatility that we hadn’t seen too much of previously. This is great news for fans as it suggests that Pale Waves may have more in their locker than they get credit for. We may see them explore different sounds or genres soon but for now, this was an enjoyable follow-up to their debut and they should be proud of what they’ve released.