Chronicling Pale Waves’ career thus far has painted the picture of a band for whom their lack of certainty of what they want to be is unavoidable. Earlier releases pointed towards the tight indie-pop endemic to The 1975’s protégés; they then skirted towards emo and 2000s pop-rock on last year’s Who Am I?, with the only real similarity being the noncommittal attitude sprinkled on both. It’s why Pale Waves, even at their best, have struggled to crack a ceiling more definitive than being ‘okay’, when they’ve never wowed or said enough in any aspect to be seen as a band with something to add, wherever they may be.
The buzz around Unwanted seems a bit different though, in Pale Waves trying their hand at jumping on the pop-punk gravy train and subsequently being adopted as a ‘proper’ rock band. The big difference is that this doesn’t seem to have come from nowhere as with the usual suspects of scene clout-chasing; it’s not like Who Am I? wasn’t worshipping at the altar of Avril Lavigne even before her curtail back to pop-punk, to where this jumping-off point is at least a mainly natural one.
It’s one that generally pays off too; Unwanted is definitely Pale Waves’ most consistent album to date, but also the one where their commercial aspirations are the most realised. That’s meant entirely as a descriptor rather than a pejorative, fitting for an approach that ends to skew younger anyway, and when affixing it to a strain of pop-punk specifically placed between the cleaner current wave and the Avril Lavigne aping of its predecessor, Unwanted makes for a fairly clear creative fusion.
If nothing else, it presents an opportunity for Pale Waves to indulge in their most anthemic side, in how snappy and straightforward cuts like Jealousy and Clean are. It’s undeniably on the poppier side in its production style—once again, there’s the same sparkle and jangle from Let Go brought into a contemporary pop-rock framework—but there’s enough done with it to bring it all together rather well. Lies comes as a bit of a false start in how it tried to cover up its own emaciated state with a swifter tempo, but get down to the meat-and-potatoes pop-rock of Only Problem or Act My Age (or indeed, any of the album’s punchier leanings), and Pale Waves turn out rather competent work.
At least, more so than they have in the past; there isn’t the same overwhelming slam of clear standout singles alongside obviously weaker rehashes that made their previous works so underpowered. Unwanted actually feels like a satisfying package, even when its stripped-back moments remain indicative of how cloying Pale Waves can really be. At least they’re less intrusive this time, and while The Hard Way severely rankles as an earlier inclusion for how it holds back some explosive momentum, the build would suggest that Pale Waves are definitely trying more than they might have previously.
It’s also worth stressing that if any of the praise towards this album can sound faint, that’s kind of hard to avoid. This isn’t a tremendous overhaul for Pale Waves as much as retooling that yields more satisfactory results, ergo they’ve found a better outlet for their usual work. That’s still not nothing though, it should be stressed, and the persistent hang-ups are somewhat softened for it. Lyricism has always been an area where Pale Waves have struggled, namely in delivering as much depth as they want to imply, and while Unwanted doesn’t rectify that by much, this style specifically is a more snug fit.
Heather Baron-Gracie still has her Avril Lavigne trill in her voice, and in a musical context in which that makes even more sense than last time, these sorts of relationship and heartbreak songs serve as a far more concise throwback. Clean especially really runs up its mileage in heady, lovestruck pop-rock directly from the 2000s; similarly, the title track and You’re So Vain bear that period’s angst, namely in how uncompromisingly broad they are but also fairly easy to get swept up in. Once again, it’s slightly disheartening that Pale Waves aren’t drilling deeper into their subject matter to sideline the nostalgia-bait argument, but it’s also one of those things that, three albums in, you just kind of have to go with. The better fit on Unwanted does a solid amount of good for it, and for where Pale Waves were for the longest time, that’s worth giving some appreciation to.
And that can also be said while acknowledging that Unwanted still isn’t a fantastic album. It’s a bit too slight in its approach to be that, anchored down by a sound that doesn’t tend to allow it to begin with. On the other hand though, it’s still Pale Waves’ best album yet, held together with their strongest hooks and most propulsive melodies, in a package that’s a lot kinder to both their strengths and weaknesses. They have been improving album on album, and while Unwanted isn’t a huge uptick in quality, the amount isn’t to be disregarded either. For what might be the first time, Pale Waves feel like a band with something substantial to like in practice instead of just in theory; again, it’s a backhanded compliment, but it’s coming from a sincere place. If this is where Pale Waves finally find their footing and are looking to build off of further, then that’s perfectly fine and good.
For fans of: Avril Lavigne, All Time Low, Against The Current
‘Unwanted’ by Pale Waves is released on 12th August on Dirty Hit Records.
Words by Luke Nuttall