The ‘difficult second album’ cliché is a well-worn one, but in Pale Waves’ case it’s warranted. In the near-three years since their debut album, they’ve negotiated a never-ending tour; the fracturing of a crucial creative partnership between lead singer Heather Baron-Gracie and drummer Ciara Doran; a near-fatal bus crash and having to finish an album in a pandemic, wearing masks in the studio and slathered in hand sanitiser. Yeesh.
As if the pressure to follow-up 2018’s Top 10 album ‘My Mind Makes Noises’ wasn’t weighing on them enough, they drew a shitty lot. “I was getting so emotional and burnt out by it all – I’ve had too many emotional breakdowns over this record,” lead Baron-Gracie told NME last year. The frustration is understandable: their earliest material, including 2016’s breakout single ‘There’s a Honey’, was “naive”, as the singer has put it, but carried the swagger of a band clamouring for bigger arenas. And they were on their way, too, inching up festival line-ups and support slots with Muse and Halsey. It was on tour with the latter that Pale Waves devastating accident took place in Berlin.
A lack of live shows will perhaps mean that ‘Who Am I?’ is less a triumphant comeback than a deep sigh of relief as they cross the finish line. The band will likely be looking back in somewhat disbelief and amazement that they finally crossed it. Doran and Baron-Gracie split their writing partnership when the demoes were considered not up to scratch, and the band became stranded on either side of the Atlantic while trying to record the album, some of which the group exchanged from their respective bedrooms.
Potential despair and bitterness gives way to liberation, though. In the interim, between the two records, Baron-Gracie came out publicly and credits her new partner and bandmates for emboldening her to do so. Doran, meanwhile, announced that they are trans/non-binary in a recent Instagram post, saying that they are ready to “live [their] happiest life”. The choice of lead single ‘Change’ and its artwork – a butterfly proudly showing off shiny new wings – is an apt one.
Her personal reckoning provides fertile ground for Baron-Gracie’s songwriting. There are clear moments of anguish and confusion, but with each line, the diagnosis becomes clear: she wasn’t being true to who she needed to be. The emotional and physical demands of never-ending tour saw Baron-Gracie rely on alcohol for a quick pick-me-up, but on ‘I Just Needed You’ and ‘Run To’ – in which she references Class A’s and prescription medication – she finds solace in sobriety and love.
There’s also some needed maturation when they to talk about sex, baby. Their debut’s PG-rated depiction of romance left them rueing an opportunity missed – a quick snog and a fumble is as far as anyone gets – but ‘Who Am I?’ is a candid, proud portrayal of queer love. This is memorably true on ‘Wish You Were Here’s playful poke at romance in the digital age (“Sick of touching myself in the dark / I look at pictures of you and I’m getting nothing back”) and the noirish ballad ‘She’s My Religion’ (“She’s cold, she’s dark, she’s cynical, she’s forever angry at the world / She’s no angel, but she is my religion”).
Though the blanket statements on ‘Tomorrow’ perhaps offer little in the way of insight (“Ben I know that you love a boy / Sexuality isn’t a choice, don’t let anyone say it’s wrong”), they’re worth their weight in gold should the song resonate with just one fan. The world is better with you in it, Baron-Gracie says, with all knowledge of someone who’s been there and made it through.
Despite that push forward into new lyrical territory, ‘Who Am I?’ often finds the band caught up in nostalgia for turn-of-the millennium pop-rock; the sullen artwork isn’t the only similarity this album shares with Avril Lavigne’s 2002’s scuzzy debut album ‘Let Go’. When the goth-pop flourishes of their debut mesh tightly with other influences – from Taylor Swift (‘Fall To Pieces’, ‘Odd Ones Out’) to Smashing Pumpkins (‘I Just Needed You’), a more realised picture emerges, rather than an angsty scribble in the back of a textbook.
There have been plenty of albums borne out of the pandemic (Swift’s ‘Folklore’ era) and some whose recording wrapped up before it all went to pot (Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’), but few bridge the gap between the old and new world quite like ‘Who Am I?’ The band capture their optimism of a new life worth living, but never shy away laying bare the challenges of doing so in times like these.
Just getting through the day or to the finish line is enough for most of us these days; Pale Waves ought to be proud of what they’ve achieved.
Release date: February 12
Record label: Dirty Hit