Douglas Martin originally had “triumphant return” in the headline.
Riddle me this: Is there any musician that has gotten more mileage out of the divisive battlefield that is internet music fandom than Nathan Williams? Is there one who has managed to stay firmly rooted in the public eye by any means necessary? The Californian twentysomething has spent the past three years working the “there’s no such thing as bad press” adage to the bone, both musically and otherwise.
Williams’ first two full-lengths came within a year’s time, one self-titled, one almost-self-titled. Everyone picked their side almost instantaneously, either breathlessly hyping his hilariously blown-out bubblegum-punk (I am currently raising my hand) or pegging him as the most overrated thing since sliced bread. Williams was pushed near the top of the heap of Lo-Fi 2.0, picked up accolades where it counted (Gorilla vs. Bear, Pitchfork, Stereogum back when people read Stereogum), and proceeded to party too hard and undergo meltdowns onstage.
Then, something unexpected happened: Williams turned into a professional. He hired a band (2/3 of the backing band for Jay Reatard), signed to a label that actually required a signature (Fat Possum), and released King of the Beach, which was gobbled up like candy by almost every mainstream media outlet imaginable. As his ascent to the indie A-list began, Williams did what any shithead punk kid who probably got famous too fast did: he kept partying too hard, regularly offended people on Twitter, lost his second drummer to the shitstorm of antics (irony alert: the guy played drums for Jay Reatard), and got into a fistfight with Black Lips bassist Jared Swilley.
While many critics cited King of the Beach as the only worthwhile piece of music Williams has ever created, the album felt hollow to me, an album that was 40% hit, 60% miss. Here’s a guy who traded in his very own brand of gloriously half-assed punk anthems for half-hearted experimentation and attempts at songwriting that fell far short of its intended mark. Williams went from a simple (and, in my opinion, pretty foolproof) setup to the offspring of The Offspring, peppering it with cues from the most wildly overvalued record of this young century (Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion) and the occasional bursts of actual inspiration (the drum-machine driven “Mickey Mouse,“ the warp-speed comedown of “Post Acid,” and the 22nd Century doo-wop of “Baseball Cards”). Of course, this is just one man’s opinion– which differed substantially from most people’s– and King of the Beach entered the pantheon.
This is where the narrative gets interesting: the critical value of Life Sux– Wavves’ new EP released on Williams’ Ghost Ramp imprint (how industrious for someone who I just called a “shithead punk kid”)– has ranged from mediocre to absolutely tepid, in spite of it playing to Williams’ strengths more than a vast percentage of King of the Beach. The production is loud and sloppy; a close to Wavves and Wavvves as something recorded in studio could possibly get. The running time is refreshingly brief; six songs, twenty minutes. Every song on the album sounds like it was written and recorded in the time span of a Beavis and Butthead commercial break, which lends itself to the simplistic-but-irresistible hook-filled anarchy that constitutes Wavves’ best work.
And, within those strict confines, Williams has found a way to branch out his songwriting to match his recognizable persona. There’s a meta reference to King of the Beach‘s title-track on “I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl,” a song that has had everyone scratching their heads and asking why anyone, let alone one of contemporary rock’s most famous stoners, would even want to remotely resemble contemporary rock’s most famous Nice Guy®. The opening line of the song is “I can’t live with my mistakes.” Why wouldn’t a dude on the top of Indie-Rock’s Greatest Potential Burnouts list want to squeeze into the shoes of a world-famous rock star who had a hand in a generational milestone and gets to happily live a quiet life with a family and family pets while occasionally selling a shitload of records with minimal artistic effort? Why wouldn’t any dude want a life that easy? Aside from the unbearable lightness of being Nirvana’s fourth drummer, “I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl” is simply a wildly enjoyable song, one with an instantly memorable vocal melody, a great bassline coiling with the kind of fuzz shoegaze bands would wield knives for, and Williams‘ genuinely funny lyrics (“I am what I am, who am I / I don’t know what that means”).
Maybe it’s a testament to Williams’ ability to turn epic bum-outs into infectious pop-punk (“No Hope Kids,” “So Bored”), but in spite of the title, Life Sux isn’t really a drag to listen to. He translates that feeling of ruined teenage moments into a good time here, with the chorus of “Bug” being an addictive refrain of “You’re no fun.” The goodwill is equally brought out in the form of guest spots, with Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino (Williams and Cosentino’s relationship has been exhaustively publicized) singing tasteful backing vocals on the breezing “Nodding Off,” and Damian Abraham guesting on “Destroy,” managing the spectacular feat of sounding like Waves song slowly mutating into a Fucked Up song without sacrificing what’s good about either band.
“Poor Lenore” shows Williams once again branching out his songwriting, only not resorting to forced experimentation as he did toward the end King of the Beach. It stands out by being darker than anything else on Life Sux (referencing Edgar Allan Poe will do that to you, I guess), but it’s interesting to hear Williams’ Nirvana obsession take the floor for a few minutes– and equally interesting to hear him try to hit notes far out of his range and (occasionally) succeed. On a few select King of the Beach tracks, Williams attempted to telegraph his self-loathing while unfortunately leaving his ability to carve out good, simple melodies behind. “Poor Lenore” shows that Williams can succeed when he goes for something of a little more substance, even though his bread-and-butter is still clearly in creating catchy, aggressively low-brow pop-punk gold.
Last year, while everybody was freaking out over King of the Beach, I asked (http://passionweiss.com/2010/07/07/douglas-martins-dirty-shoes-king-of-the-beach-is-dead-long-live-the-king/) if perhaps we knighted Nathan Williams too early. Now, it seems that the dialogue has charted course in the opposite direction; critics are wondering if King of the Beach will be the only thing he’ll be remembered for when he goes back to what he’s really good at, what he got recognized for in the first place. And, while we sit here on the internet arguing about Wavves’ legacy, there are legions of people– people who spend their time enjoying music instead of evaluating it– flocking to his shows and posting every new Wavves song they can find on their Tumblrs. The Kingdom of the Beach grows larger and larger with each passing day, with kids covered in tattoos and filthy sneakers wet with cheap domestic beer coming in drones to crowd-surf at the foot of the throne, many of them presumably part of sloppy pop-punk bands of their own. Like him or lump him, Nathan Williams is the latest in a long tradition of pop-punk slackers– one that will likely be around a lot longer than we anticipate.
MP3: Wavves-”I Wanna Be Dave Grohl”