If you look at the album cover of Pale Waves’ ‘Who Am I?’, it’s already quite obvious that these tracks are not going to be the jangly teen romances we heard on their first album – the neon has gone and it’s been replaced by grungy clothes and lead singer Heather Baron-Gracie, posed in some kind of dirty underpass-cross-school-hallway. Pale Waves’ sophomore project has lost the naivety of their first, and the PG rating has been scrapped, as Baron-Gracie gives a brilliantly honest account of the struggles and liberations her and her bandmates have been through over the last few years. The snogs and fumbles of 2018’s ‘My Mind Makes Noises’ have become a full on coming-of-age film.
Queer love is at the heart of a lot of the album. Baron-Gracie has come out during the process of making the album, and the confidence and pride which comes from overcoming self-doubt and insecurity sits behind most of the album’s emotional kick. Songs such as ‘She’s My Religion’ see Baron-Gracie expressing her sexuality without any need for euphemism, whilst ‘I Just Needed You’ and ‘Easy’ celebrate the relief which comes from a relationship in which she can finally be herself. ‘Sexuality isn’t a choice’ Baron-Gracie sings in the track ‘Tomorrow’. This song is one of the highlights of the album for me, a driving, determined piece of music, written as if the band are personally addressing their fans and the ways the world hurts them. It might seem a bit heavy handed sometimes, but Baron-Gracie’s vocals, which have an incredible, yearning rawness to them throughout the album, drop down to their lowest, most guttural notes here, and if the optimism that she defiantly proclaims resonates with fans as I believe it must, then she is offering them a crucial hand in the dark – I have made it through, and so can you.
The band have had to overcome a lot to make this album, with car crashes, pandemics and their own struggles with identity attempting to trip them up along the way. Baron-Gracie references class A drugs over the uplifting indie melodies of ‘Run To’, moments of emotional and mental collapse in ‘Wish U Were Here’ and the chorus-heavy ‘Fall to Pieces’, and gives two-fingers to misogyny in ‘You Don’t Own Me’, where an electric guitar chugs away behind her sarcastic vocals. The band seems to be emerging from something, beginning to spread their wings like the butterfly on the artwork for first single ‘Change’. ‘Life’s not what it was at fifteen’ sings Heather on ‘Tomorrow’.
What life was like is something which has been on all of our minds for about a year now, and Pale Waves appear no different. Sonic nostalgia runs throughout ‘Who Am I?’, as the band evokes a sound straight out of early 00s pop-punk. The opening of ‘Wish U Were Here’ sounds like an echo of Avril Lavigne’s ‘Complicated’, and Baron-Gracie’s slouched stance of the album art appears an almost direct reference to her 2002 album ‘Let Go’. They sound most like their old songs with ‘Easy’, where an arena-ready synth beat pulses through the chorus, but a few minutes later and they are evoking a Smashing Pumpkins-style riff to open the hazy ‘I Just Needed You’. Much of the music on this album seems primed for post-lockdown gigs, but through your headphones in a secluded room, there is an unfiltered honesty to it which means Baron-Gracie and you almost feel like each other’s confidant. There are elements of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry to songs like ‘Odd Ones Out’ and ‘Change’ as well, which combine with a greater presence of acoustic guitar than we have seen in their other music, giving an optimism and steel-stringed intimacy to an album which could otherwise risk the occasional slip into musical graffiti.
Pale Waves have sprayed their names onto the wall in bold with ‘Who Am I?’. But it is in the moments which acknowledge self-doubt and insecurity that this album really does something wonderful. Heather Baron-Gracie is still asking this question, most explicitly so in the closing song, but what Pale Waves show us is that it is okay to be proud of who you are without knowing exactly what that means. The tenderness carries as much punch as the anthemic songs of realisation, and their message is one which the band should be proud of – it is alright to not know who you are, because Pale Waves are learning with you. Challenges will come – ‘We’re only human both of us and we’ll keep making countless mistakes’ sings Baron-Gracie in ‘Odd Ones Out’ – but she believes that you can overcome them, and the band are there to provide the soundtrack.
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