This is the third album I’ve reviewed in the last 12 months that’s come from the Dirty Hit record label and there’s such an obvious link between albums by Rina Sawayama, beabadoobee and, now, Pale Waves, which goes beyond sharing a label. Each of these records manages to sound ‘out of time’, the sort of album that recalls an era of pop and indie in the late 90s and early 00s, whether that’s Britney Spears, grunge indie or Avril Lavigne respectively.
I realise kicking off a review saying that the album sounds like Avril Lavigne is going to be an instant turn off for some people, but it’s honestly the most obvious comparison to make. I actually think that Who Am I? uses this inspiration to make for a better album than the band’s debut, even if you still don’t quite get a full answer to the titular question.
Whereas the endless slew of similar sounding pop-indie bops that were spread across the band’s early EPs and debut My Mind Makes Noises were perfectly fine, if painfully samey, there’s a distinctive step up in the variety and confidence on this follow-up record. Where the group felt like they were previously sat in the shadow of label mates/mentors The 1975, Who Am I? is a massive step towards Pale Waves claiming their own stake in the pop scene. Opener ‘Change’ is to the point and more expansive sonically than anything that came before, while ‘Tomorrow’ is the most predictable ‘Pale Waves’ track here and yet sounds like musicians in sync with each other like never before.
I keep referring to Pale Waves as pop – and this is an out-and-out pop record. Who Am I? is all the better for it, too. ‘You Don’t Know Me’ is full of ‘Sk8er Boi’ angst where lead singer Heather Baro-Gracie is able to properly let go for a bit. ‘Easy’ and ‘She’s My Religion’ are as hooky as ‘Complicated’, while ‘Odd Ones Out’ takes a more direct approach in its similarity to ‘I’m With You’. Of course, I’m referencing Avril Lavigne’s biggest hits there, not just because Heather sounds like her, but these songs are SO 2003, it’s mad.
Consistency was never the band’s problem. I don’t think there’s a single song they’ve done that I’d say I actively dislike, but there have never been many I’d be more than just indifferent too. Pretty much all of the band’s best tracks are on this album though. ‘Run To’ and ‘She’s My Religion’ feel pretty different in sound, but are united by this sense of togetherness that the band now has. “Hey life is going well, except my mental health” sums up the mood of Who Am I? lyrically, which comes off as a struggle of self-discovery, as well as how open to be about those struggles.
For some it may feel a little light on lyrical depth. These songs aren’t exactly deep dives into the psyche. Instead, it’s more of a mood or a thematic journey through the record, culminating in the slightly awkward stripped-back ballad title track. It can often feel a little too on the nose (“How am I supposed to cope, when I feel like I’m losing every hope”) but it matters less to me on an album that has such a well-defined ‘sound’ overall. As a largely LGBTQ band too, it’s really refreshing to hear Heather pulling from personal experience in these lyrics, it would just be nice to get a little more depth in there too.
Who Am I? isn’t aiming to follow up a massive breakthrough record for Pale Waves, instead it feels more like the first solid step into pop for the band. They’re a band whose songs definitely sounded way better live than on the record, and I feel that songs like ‘Change’ and ‘Easy’ manage to capture that energy on the track for the first time. They still have a little further to go, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.
Words by Sam Atkins