It’s been so difficult to go to bat for Waterparks pretty much since the beginning. Breaking out with their Cluster EP earmarked them as a weird, interesting little pop-rock band that could do a lot more with their hefty cross-breeding of electronics than so many of their peers, as shown by their debut full-length Double Dare, but that album also received something of a lashing for what felt like such a blatant condensation of alt-pop tones and tropes that could be seen as the easiest way to cultivate an audience. There’s definitely some truth in that as well, but on the whole it doesn’t feel all that fair, partly because Waterparks are far more intelligent songwriters than so many give them credit for, and partly because if they were looking to simply take an easy, direct route to stardom, Entertainment would’ve been a far more memorable follow-up than it was, rather than becoming more and more forgettable with basically every passing day. And for as much as the listening public has soured on Waterparks for what can come across as more or less a vehicle for clout-chasing obnoxiousness (which, again, isn’t entirely unjustified), there’s more to them than that, regardless of how much the band themselves seemingly want to feed the fire of attrition against them. Why else would they give their new album a title like Fandom, and seemingly choose its pre-release singles as some of the least rock-leaning tracks of their career thus far?
But at the same time, for an album designed as a broadside against their own fame and industry politics that have afflicted them thus far, it’s hard to go into Fandom with the mindset that, had Waterparks not cultivated the persona they currently have, the results might be a fair bit different. When you get Awsten Knight flaunting an online image of himself that’s gone so far past a parody of stan culture it’s basically embracing it at this stage, and then having an album that deliberately wants to buck against what that’s set up for the band, there’s a disconnect that can feel awkward to dive into, even if there’s a wryness and wit with which Waterparks have often been good at honing in the past. Add to that what can only be presumed as the desire to twist former expectations with their most varied and scattershot material to date, and it’s hard to see what Fandom wants to accomplish beyond its own screeds laid out on the very surface. It’s personal and biting, sure, but it’s not hitting the heights of what Waterparks themselves have achieved in this vein before, and when it’s as uneven as this, that can feel really disappointing.
That comes with the acknowledgment that the central idea on Fandom isn’t a bad one in itself; the expectations of fame mixed with the residual pressure of dealing with a former label that screwed them over has clearly taken its toll on Knight, and presenting this as effectively his flagellation of an unsustainable, unfair industry is something that has mileage to it. Tracks like Watch What Happens Next and I Miss Having Sex But At Least I Don’t Wanna Die Anymore present the life of an artist as one where the expectations to cater to what fans want can basically deny an artist of any personal desires in their own life; Telephone feels as though it comes from the perspective of overzealous, over-enthusiastic fans trying to rip down personal and private boundaries as much as they can; and Turbulent, War Crimes and numerous others come as knocks towards both the industry at large and the former label still trying to make something of them even though it’s facilitating an increasingly unhealthy environment. There’s definitely material there to work with, and to their credit, Waterparks are able to hit their targets with enough vigour when most necessary, like on Watch What Happens Next and War Crimes. And yet, there’s the niggling feeling that Fandom’s sentiment can feel rather perfunctory, especially when they aren’t delivered with all that much nuance, or with the shadow of an image that the band themselves aren’t totally absolved from blame for looming over them. It can feel as though they’re running in circles a lot of the time, framing their label drama as a breaking relationship but peppering it with similar details time and time again in a way that feels as though they’re trying to squeeze the absolute most out of this topic over the course of a relatively short album, regardless of how little actually comes from it. It’s not exactly petty, per se, particularly when the malignant source of the drama is so deeply rooted, but it feels as though Waterparks don’t have a lot to say on the matter either, and when that materialises as songs that have surface-level depth but aren’t all that engaging on the whole, it makes for an album that can feel shallower than it rightfully should.
And to an extent, it feels as though Waterparks can see that themselves, which is why they’ve made Fandom their most sonically diverse release to date, partly as a middle finger to any former label restrictions placed on them, and partly as their widely-acknowledged play to break from the norm in a way that so many other genres are allowed to do except rock; the fact that they reference how Lil Nas X’s embrace of country within hip-hop led to the longest lasting Billboard Number One single in history on Watch What Happens Next is particularly telling. And again, that’s all admirable, but it also feels as though Waterparks of aiming over their station when a lot of these ideas don’t really pan out. For once, it’s not the production that’s a problem on one of these albums either, as Waterparks are perfectly capable of making the electronically-assisted, heavily-AutoTuned style work in their favour when the likes of Dream Boy and Easy To Hate have as much bubbling, sparkling personality as they do. But these moments are also indicative that breaking out of the pop-rock lane mightn’t be the most fruitful endeavour, as in terms of quality, Fandom is all over the place in how well its pulling of modern scene touchstones lands. It’s not all that surprising to see them deviating towards more confined alt-pop on High Definition and I Miss Having Sex But At Least I Don’t Wanna Die Anymore, or even emo-rap production on [Reboot], but they don’t really mesh with any centralised theme, and while that might be the point, there’s a disjointedness to Fandom that does overshadow any notions of freedom or creativity. It doesn’t help that Knight’s more limited vocal range doesn’t have the suitable malleability to translate to this breadth of sounds, but in terms of just hitting a mark creatively, the salience of the idea has evidently taken precedence over any sort of execution that would make it work better.
As such, Fandom ends up feeling like an album that believes it’s a lot more liberated than it is. Scathing rebukes and breaking from previous shackles are all well and good, but when there’s not a lot that’s done with them beyond the simple concept of having them there, the whole thing can fall flat. On principle, the idea is solid, and past experience and even flashes present here make it evident that Waterparks can handle an idea like this, but stretched over an entire album with very little engagement beyond those core concepts doesn’t make for all that satisfying of a listen. It’s a shame too, especially given the often unfair derision that Waterparks have often been on the receiving end of for coming across as shallow, but it’s not like there’s much evidence this time around that can be used to suitably deny that. There are moments that have something to them, but they’re pretty few and far between on an album that can’t afford to be as inconsistent as that.
For fans of: I Don’t Know How But They Found Me, Simple Creatures, Fall Out Boy
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Fandom’ by Waterparks is out now on Hopeless Records.