It’s impossible to talk about Wavves without addressing the band’s troubles. In May 2009, after releasing a debut album that met with grassroots support and critical high-fives, frontman Nathan Williams took the stage at the Primavera Festival in Barcelona and proceeded to launch the most epic of fails: indulging an endless soundcheck, mocking the crowd, noodling aimlessly on guitar, dodging bottles from fans and sticks from his disgruntled drummer, and watching as the crew unceremoniously dismantled the drumkit while Williams tried to keep going alone. The event triggered an explosive backlash, both online and off, as detractors and fellow musicians saw his behavior as the culmination of white-kid indie-rock entitlement: Most young acts would kill for a slot in front of 80,000 festival goers, but Williams seemed to wish he was any place else.
Perhaps he wanted to be back at the beach? His follow-up to that fiasco is titled King of the Beach, which is kind of a duh for a group called Wavves. “Let the sun burn my eyes, let it burn my back,” he sings at the beginning of the title track, before turning those four words into a catchy sing-along.
At first this milieu comes across as indie trendspotting, as so many bands are leaving the garage for the shores lately (including Williams’ girlfriend Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast). But eventually, the setting becomes a beach of the mind: an escapist fantasy, a place where he can retreat from his own reputation.
There, Williams can crank his Beach Boys and Ramones records to bratty volumes, pilfering from his influences to construct infectious songs with insouciant competence. Working with new rhythm section Stephen Pope and Billy Hayes (of Jay Reatard’s old band), Williams places abrasive guitars alongside tongue-in-cheek synths and Brian Wilson harmonies to create a sound that is at once warmly familiar and askew. The sand gets everywhere: “Baseball Cards” drenches its girl-group sha-la-la’s in gritty distortion, and “Mickey Mouse” commingles E Street boardwalk shuffle with staticky vocals and lo-fi guitars.
Of course, Williams’ troubles have followed him to the beach and occasionally block out the sun or kick sand in his face. “I’d apologize but it wouldn’t mean shit, it wouldn’t mean shit,” he sings on “Idiot,” ostensibly addressing his own reputation and the precarious position he’s found himself in. Self-deprecation permeates every track, as if to prove that no one hates Nathan Williams as much as Nathan Williams. “I still hate my music, it’s all the same,” goes “Take on the World.” “My own friends hate my guts,” goes “Green Eyes. He’s documenting his own punishment in song, deflecting others’ disdain by beating himself up.
Of course, that push-and-pull of assertive self-loathing only makes King of the Beachthat much more fascinating: Williams may be a fuck-up, but he’s a self-aware fuck-up, dressing himself down in his lyrics by building himself up in his music. It’s a fine line in the sand, but he walks it with such charming nonchalance that it’s impossible not to let bygones be bygones and join him in the surf.