Pale Waves – ‘Unwanted’ review: pop-punk-indebted rock that pushes the boundaries

The four-piece delve into the past to forge boldly ahead, while expanding their sonic palette and finding fresh ways to speak to their fervent fanbase

It’s an evolution few could have predicted on the evidence of Pale Waves’ synth-heavy 2018 debut, but the Manchester four-piece’s wholehearted embrace of early 2000s pop-punk – from primary-colour-power chords and radio-friendly production tropes to bombastic choruses – has entranced a legion of fans.

“We don’t need to fit a perfect mould,” lead singer Heather Baron-Gracie has said of album three. “We don’t need to apologise for being ourselves, and we won’t change for anyone.” It’s the sort of obstinate statement that was regularly heard back in the days when baggy jeans, skateboards and piercings were the established uniform of the dispossessed. Yet, right here in 2022, you have to admit that the sentiment rings far truer. 20 years on from pop-punk’s heyday, and the once-ubiquitous genre is a far less crowded space.

While last year’s second album, ‘Who Am I?’, was a little more balanced, ‘Unwanted’ is fierce, brashly plunging deep into the pop-punk grab-bag. Springy opener ‘Lies’ and the swerving dual-note riffs of the title track establish the playing field, further furrowed by the ‘Teenage Dirtbag’-recalling ‘Clean’ and the Paramore-aping ‘Only Problem’. The band plainly sport their influences across the 13 tracks, with Zakk Cervini’s adroit production fulfilling its era-reviving brief competently.

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But on the album’s strongest moment, ‘The Hard Way’, the pop-punk apparel is largely ejected. Instead, Baron-Gracie builds an elegant vocal melody grounded in an intimate, lullaby-like acoustic framework. She sings of the tragic true-life story of a bullied classmate’s suicide, and while the song later explodes into the type of goth-punk crescendo that My Chemical Romance would be proud of, it’s the song’s delicacy that is most enrapturing. Along with creepy later cut ‘You’re So Vain’, it’s a firm indicator of the band’s wider musical capacity.

Likewise, the record isn’t just an exercise in teenage nostalgia: it’s also rippling with very current concerns. With a thematic grounding in the personal issues affecting their fervent fan community – and the LGBTQ+ landscape in particular – this collection finds Pale Waves unabashedly planting their flag in long-abandoned spaces in a way that seems anything but cynical.

“You have to have a healthy relationship with your past,” Baron-Gracie tells NME in this week’s Big Read cover story, “or else you’ll just crumble”. Raising the shipwreck of pop-punk from yesteryear and re-fitting it as the flagship for those who feel genuinely maligned, Pale Waves’ third album is anything but ‘Unwanted’.

Details

Release date: August 12

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Record label: Dirty Hit

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