King of the Beach
(Fat Possum; 2010)
By Calum Marsh | 24 July 2010
King of the Beach is at once the best and worst album Nathan Williams could have produced as the follow-up to last year’s hype- and consequent backlash-inciting Wavvves, a release history will remember as the exact point at which music blogs completed their collective transformation into an indie-TMZ. It’s the best album he could have produced in so far as it proves Williams’ willingness to grow, however negligibly, as a songwriter and as a musician, which is to say that the album does not sound like totally unlistenable dogshit (a distinction it does not share with its predecessors). I say it’s simultaneously the worst album Wavves could have produced because it will no doubt grant Williams a renewed lease on popularity and relevance—which, given that this, his third and by far best album, is his best only by virtue of it now being at least marginally listenable dogshit, is more than a little frustrating. Why can’t we just stop paying attention to Wavves?
Partly, I suppose, it’s because King of the Beach is a considerably more interesting album than anticipated. It’s clear from the record’s opening seconds that the noise-steeped shitgaze of Wavves albums past has been scrapped in favor of something more conspicuously cleaner and, by extension, accessible. Which isn’t to say that King of the Beach is a stab at commercial success; the particular brand of California mall-punk zealously quoted here has long-since passed its fifteen minutes in the mainstream spotlight, and it’s difficult to imagine even dedicated Green Day fans getting excited about Williams’ Offspring-by-way-of-Ronettes interpretation of the movement. (Tepid first-week digital sales figures would seem to confirm that Green Day fans are not, in fact, copping Beach in droves.)
What makes King of the Beach ultimately remain uncommercial is the same thing that makes it ultimately irritating: the sudden shift from trendy, down-and-dirty hyper-lo-fi to ostensibly accessible “clean” punk is just a similarly empty gesture. A major complaint leveled against Wavves last year was that all the noise and reverb was there simply to make up for a fundamental lack of musical competence. Williams, it was said, cannot sing, cannot play guitar, and cannot write a good pop song, but the depth of distortion strewn atop the breadth of his compositions masked the paucity of raw talent and true quality on display. King of the Beach, then, seems the direct response to those allegations: by removing the noise, Williams is lifting the veil and ostensibly bearing all; he is, in a certain sense, proving himself and proving his abilities to us by showing that he does not need the “crutch” of lo-fi distortion to make his core material appealing.
The problem here being that the clean production values are themselves another veil masking Williams’ fundamental badness—and so this album becomes, like its predecessors, an exercise in misdirection and deceit. All of the earlier Wavves trappings and failings are here, but we’re meant to see past them because they’re packaged and presented differently. But when you begin to see how wafer-thin even the packaging itself is—when you notice how unconvincing the girl-group highs of “Baby Say Goodbye” are, or realize that the full-tilt skate-punk production on the title track, snappy as it may initially seem, isn’t even in the same realm as the mainstream productions it so directly quotes—you begin to see the cracks right there on the surface. The illusion breaks down, and the errors that were so egregious in previous contexts start to look similarly inexcusable in this fancy new one.
Because this is still the same childish prattling, the same whiny nostalgia trip we’ve seen countless times before. The puerile fixation with nostalgia brandished on King of the Beach is regressive, stubborn, overly sentimental but also somehow coldly knowing and ironic, emotionally misguided, intellectually shallow, thoroughly boring. This is why it doesn’t matter how much reverb drowns out a boring-ass Best Coast record, why it’s totally irrelevant how pseudo-dancey “Deadbeat Summer” was, why you can’t trust anybody’s opinion when they’re stoned out of their mind on a hot summer afternoon, and why Nathan Williams will never write a good album no matter how much he plunders the depths of early-‘90s mall-punk or the Beach Boys discography or any number of other genres he must hear but clearly doesn’t really get. This stuff is just fundamentally, hopelessly empty, effective only in reflecting our childhoods—our pogs and baseball cards and super-soakers—back at us for cheap thrills. And so yes, finally, King of the Beach is both the best and worst Wavves album imaginable: it’s a huge success for Nathan Williams, but, if we let it win us over, it’s a huge failure for us.