While much of the charm of Wavves’ previous albums was their DIY approach and significant layer of lo-fi scuzz, Afraid of Heights signals a shift in the band’s creative vision, at least from a production standpoint—one that’s seemingly at odds with Wavves’ established pop-punk aesthetic. Album opener “Sail to the Sun” begins with an extended intro of chiming xylophone before turning into a crunchy two-chord anthem, like the Ramones with a layer of digital polish. The track encapsulates the tension evident throughout Afraid of Heights—between frontman Nathan Williams’s need to expand his palette while also attempting to hold on to a core aesthetic that’s been built up over a handful of records.
What made 2010’s King of the Beach such an enjoyable, if unoriginal, effort was the fact that Williams and company understood that their content—beaches, babes, boards, and bongs—was best consumed in short bursts of distorted guitars and snarled vocals. Afraid of Heights shares some of that album’s immediacy, but too often veers into tedious sonic experimentation. The title track, for example, initially creates momentum from an overblown bassline, airy falsetto, and a killer melody, but later devolves into a lengthy coda of indiscriminate instrumentation. “Dog” never earns its leisurely pace, a mid-album dud that sees Williams repeating, “Still I’ll be your dog,” ad nauseam, while “Everything Is My Fault” begins as a promising piece of Bowie-esque glam-fuzz, but again, Williams’s hook-less repetition fails to get the track moving, the echoing voices and repeated lines acting as a roadblock rather than an accelerant.
The album’s opening triad of tunes proves that Wavves are at their best when Williams’s more indulgent tendencies are reined in, cramming power chords and feelings of loneliness into three-minute slots decorated with a haze of distortion. “Demon to Lean On,” which boasts a seriously earworm-y hook, is a sun-soaked jam that could soundtrack many a backseat make-out session this summer if it weren’t so wonderfully cynical toward romantic relationships. “Mystic” revels in sonic filth, employing distorted handclaps and an eerie, pulsing bassline to anchor its exploration of existential dread. Likewise, “Sail to the Sun” takes a funky low end and builds to a blow-out chorus where Williams proclaims, “We’ll all die alone/Just the way we lived.”
The whole of the album can’t sustain such momentum though, too often lapsing into humorless genre appropriation. There’s an urgency to the earliest cuts that gets lost in the bevy of production tricks, resulting in a convoluted, inconsistent album. Williams’s inability to contain his more experimental tendencies, along with his penchant for reducing the heavy themes of isolation and disillusion to the equivalent of seventh-grade poetry, hinders Afraid of Heights. When there are a plethora of bands—Bleached, Swearin’, and White Lung, to name a few—doing power-punk in a more condensed and satisfying form, it’s hard to indulge Williams’s more derivative whims. More often than not, Afraid of Heights points to a set of punk-rock signifiers rather than thoughtfully engaging with them.