Album Review: Pale Waves – ‘Who Am I’

Released on February 12th, Pale Waves’ stellar sophomore album, Who Am I? is a rousingly candid effort to commemorate being unashamedly you. Jodie Averis delves beneath the six-string riffs and punky wit of one of rock’s most exciting cuts of the year.

By moving away from their roots in the dreamy synth-wave indie-pop that was established in their debut album My Mind Makes Noises in 2018, the Manchester quartet call to arms anyone who also feels different by channelling the steadfast strength of renowned female alt-rock artists such as Hole’s Courtney Love and Alanis Morissette. Acting as an ode to the angsty pop-punk of the late 90s and early 2000s, Pale Waves’ lead vocalist Heather Baron-Gracie dons her 1970s black Vox Phantom and discusses the themes of mental health, sexuality and the turbulences and tribulations of the journey of self-love and discovery in the band’s six-string-stocked record.

The journey of the production, however of this highly anticipated album could be described as anything but smooth. On the back of a near-fatal collision involving their tour van near Munich in March 2020, and the isolation of the pandemic, Baron-Gracie pens her thoughts and discoveries in this introspective selection and offers her commentary. The result? A charming collection of honest and proudly earnest chronicles about not fitting in with the status quo as an LGBT+ individual.

‘There is a likeable authenticity to Baron-Gracie’s grit and punky wit, fuelled further by Ciara Doran’s thunderous drumming’

Opening track Change seems to be the perfect choice for a band undergoing metamorphosis. This is instantly where we are hit with the heavy influence of artists such as Avril Lavigne, whom which Baron-Gracie cites as a personal favourite during her own rebellious youth and has drawn sonic threads from. Accompanied by the skater girl, grunge aesthetic of Who Am I?’s album art, Pale Waves perhaps pay homage to the beloved singer in the replication of Lavigne’s iconic crossed-arm stance on her own 2002 debut album art of Let Go. Change’s catharsis is bound with a punchy chorus and acoustic backups, tinged with sexually charged lyrics. Baron-Gracie’s cries of “now you act like I’m nobody/But you still want to go down on me” has the classic elements of frustration and complication that is quintessential to the pop-punk and pop-rock that most of us millennials would have grown up with. This nostalgia is retained in Fall To Pieces with its powerful chorus filled with strong riffs.

Refreshingly, Baron-Gracie addresses her sexuality in She’s My Religion, which bears a gloomier sound compared to its counterparts. She proudly uses female pronouns when involving a love interest for the first time in the band’s career, and has stated on multiple occasions that she believes that queer relationships do not get the mainstream representation that they should. Baron-Gracie has also stated her frustration at the number of songs and music videos that concern straight women getting drunk and kissing other women that have previously graced the charts, rather than a heartfelt tribute to genuine queer relationships and love. The lyrical trio of “she’s cold, she’s dark, she’s cynical” is an overt testament to loving someone’s dark sides as well as their good, and is a novel approach to a topic that generally overly-romanticises and, more often, sexualises. As the listener, I get the impression that this is where Baron-Gracie is most true to herself and her identity, and not hiding in the shadows of the pronoun-less metaphors of My Mind Makes Noises.

Easy offers a fun, light-hearted and more upbeat love lyric to She’s My Religion. Its sickeningly sweet chorus demonstrates Pale Waves’ ability to produce good and, even more importantly, catchy pop-rock tracks. However, at points, the band’s identity is somewhat lost in subdued tracks such as Wish U Were Here and I Just Needed You. There is a distinct lack of the moody attitude that perpetuates the rest of the record thus far. Having said this, their angst and flair returns in Tomorrow, and hits a crux at a fever pitch with You Don’t Own Me. Tomorrow acts as an emphatic rallying cry to be different and unique, to embrace oneself. The sense of hope flourishes throughout the course of the song, “Ben, I know that you love a boy/Sexuality isn’t a choice/Don’t let anyone say it’s wrong/Won’t you just keep hanging on?,” where Baron-Gracie wraps her arms around the queer youth and offers warm, big-sisterly advice.

You Don’t Own Me, on the other hand, launches a scathing attack on a patriarchal society that judges how women look and behave. In doing so she uses irony and sarcasm in her lyrics – “a pretty face like yours should really learn to smile more/ And no one night stands for you or they’ll think that you’re a whore.” There is a very likeable authenticity to Baron-Gracie’s grit and punky wit, and this boundless energy is further fuelled by Ciara Doran’s thunderous drumming skills that echo those of early Paramore. It is the sort of song that evokes memories of teen rebellion and wanting to skip school, with the catchy hook that Baron-Gracie furiously hisses “I’d rather pull out my teeth/Than be what you want me to be.” Despite its anger and thrashing guitar, it has a much deeper message; it still remains poignant in society that there are rampant double-standards and sexism that follow women both in and out of the media around like a dark cloud. Pale Waves are certainly dancing and causing a racket in this rain, with their fearlessness to fight and bite back shining bright and being almost infectious.

‘Ending on a note of self-questioning reiterates that the journey of self-discovery is never conclusive, but rather ever-evolving’

Who Am I? feels like an album that Pale Waves had to make in order for them to assert their self-discoveries, as both artists and individuals. The final and title track of the record is a sobering piano ballad, full of existential questioning of “how do I live a life/ Where I don’t feel this low,” and this reflects on the slightly darker side of self-discovery, a journey which she believes doesn’t ever truly stop. Here, Baron-Gracie’s vocals are somewhat imperfect and airy, yet they still retain their charm. The slight voice cracking is an emphasis on the desperation, and also where I get my sense that she is truly laying herself bare, both lyrically and musically.

Perhaps ending on a note of self-questioning reiterates that the journey of self-discovery is never conclusive, only ever-evolving and changing. The flitting nature of punk-infused power to sombre acoustic sounds of Who Am I? demonstrates the frustration of this journey and this change, and is an engaging listen. Whilst retaining their instantly recognisable gothic aesthetic, Pale Waves have shown that they are capable of change, and are proving to be a diverse talent with an exciting future. They are making waves in the indie scene, and this record shows that they really do seem to be figuring out who they are.

Written by: Jodie Averis

Edited by: Alex Duke

Featured and article image courtesy of PALE WAVES via Facebook.