Thomas Boyd reviews Pale Waves' new album...
In spite of all its merits, the main takeaway from Pale Waves’ latest album Unwanted seems to be a warning to budding musicians over how leaning too far into your influences combined with the obsessive pursuit of internet fame can leave your musical output catchy, yet devoid of originality.
That said, it’s not the band’s fault.
For the record, I am a fan of Pale Waves and have been since before their debut album, My Mind Makes Noises, which flawlessly synthesised the goth-pop sound reminiscent of The Cure’s more mainstream hits with the youthful vitality of The Cranberries. The voice of frontwoman Heather Baron-Gracie even crooned with the same vulnerability and heart as the late Delores O’Riordan’s.
Their songs’ subject matter has always remained relatable to listeners of all ages and with an out-and-proud WLM for a singer and trans/non-binary drummer Ciara Doran as band co-founder, Pale Waves do not only offer a home and community for queer fans but are themselves inspirations for the next generation of queer musicians and creatives.
Ironically, that is also what makes the limitations of the band’s output so frustrating as although the lyrics and message of Pale Waves retains a specific identity, their sound - despite shifting through genres between albums - consistently verges on the derivative.
The heavier music direction of Unwanted is not one I dislike. I was raised on first-wave punk rock in the form of The Clash and Stiff Little Fingers, as well as the more accessible punk of later bands such as Green Day. Avril Lavigne, an idol of Heather Baron-Gracie’s and clear inspiration for the songs on Unwanted, has always been a party playlist favourite and like every teenager under the sun I too had an emo phase. Once you remove the rose-tinted glasses though, you realise that nostalgia can only take you so far and an artist can easily lean too far into their influences, a trap Pale Waves consistently fall into.
Pop-punk has always been a difficult genre for a band to work within when attempting to forge an identity free of cliché, and the catchy (yet countless) power ballads of Unwanted feel more like extensions to the discographies of Avril or bands like Sum 41 and Blink-182 than a cohesive body of original work. Despite the heavier sound overall when compared to previous albums, the distorted guitars are restrained throughout with guitarist Hugo Silvani allowed to shred a solo just once on ‘Only Problem’, with cookie-cutter, verse-chorus format favoured for the majority of the album.
The more touching moments are also limited in their emotional impact such as on ‘Without You’ or ‘The Hard Way’ when the songs revert to Unwanted’s default sound and/or tempo towards the end of their runtime, stripping them of their unique character. These are not new problems either as second album, Who Am I?, suffered from the same inability to offer a fresh take on its own Noughties singer-songwriter influences and even My Mind Makes Noises - in my opinion their most inspired album - failed to stray far from the sound of Dirty Hit label-mates, the 1975, thanks to Matty Healy’s production.
However, this absence of a distinct identity is not the sole fault of Pale Waves and neither are they an outlier in this regard. Emo-inflected pop music is the flavour of the year and that does not look like changing anytime soon, but when you combine a dated genre with all-consuming internet algorithms the only possible outcome is simplistic and clichéd hits. Platforms such as TikTok have an increasingly stream-focused music industry in a chokehold and push artists to write songs composed of catchy 15-second snippets designed to go viral, souped-up on nostalgia, yet fall short of being timeless classics themselves. This is why Pale Waves, a band with boundless potential and something important to say, ends up producing an album that feels underdeveloped and unoriginal when all is said and done.
The icons of yesterday are icons for a reason of course, and can be inspirational in small doses, however the supremacy of internet trends means that major labels will continue to churn out sub-par pop music manufactured for mass appeal as opposed to more risky and inventive tracks.
In the long run, this is going to ultimately stifle the creativity of new artists and chain them to the sounds that came before for fear of internet irrelevancy.
Words: Thomas Boyd