It is a truth universally acknowledged that a band in possession of good reviews for their first album must find the second difficult. Debuts are, after all, borne out of years of hard graft and fine-tuning, whereas follow-ups are often written and recorded amongst a brand-new dizzying schedule of touring and promotion and under the ever-pressing gaze of fans and record company execs.
Pale Waves’ second long player comes with all that and a whole heap more. The band has rollercoastered along since they were placed fifth in the BBC’s Sound of 2018 poll & their warmly received and often infuriatingly catchy debut My Mind Makes Noises peaked at a creditable eight in the charts, taking in everything from award wins and film soundtrack inclusions to narrowly avoiding dying in a coach crash and having their recording sessions curtailed by a global pandemic along the way.
Small wonder then that Who Am I? is an album filled with quarter-life crisis angst, expansive emotion and singer Heather Baron-Gracie’s newly-found LGBTQ+ empowerment, as she openly embraces her sexuality for the first time in her songwriting – often, as in the refrain of lead single ‘Change’ (“You act like I’m nobody, but you still want to go down on me”) with all the subtlety of a brick to the face.
It’s those lyrics that really divide the album. At their best, their brutal honesty acts as a perfect counterfoil to the band’s perfectly serviceable, though occasionally unremarkable, upbeat power pop/indie rock hybrids, particularly in the riotous, breathless ‘Tomorrow’ and its rundown list of those who feel they’re ‘the odd one in the crowd;’ and ‘You Don’t Own Me,’ which makes a punchy promise to be ‘your biggest mistake’, who would ‘rather pull out my teeth than be who you want me to be’.
However, on the likes of ‘Run To’ and ‘She’s My Religion,’ they aim big but fall into the realms of sixth-form poetry and clichés about rebelling with some pink hair dye or falling for a lover because “she’s cold, she’s dark, she’s cynical, she’s forever angry at the world”.
There’s also no getting away from the fact that all the turmoil and praise, coupled with the COVID-19 outbreak that forced the band to decamp from LA back to the UK to complete the album’s recording, makes for a disjointed end product. Tracks like the bland Pale Waves-by-numbers of ‘Easy’ and the acoustic-driven reach of ‘Odd Ones Out’ fail to hit the heights set by the taut and heartfelt title track or the explosively raw ‘Fall To Pieces’.
The result is a kind of holding album, something that will fill the time while another My Mind Makes Noises brews, but may offer little more than a couple of moments of finery to an eventual greatest hits compilation in the fullness of time. One to file under acceptable and move on.