Pale Waves are getting louder. Both musically, and in more personal terms. On their third album Unwanted, the band are more vocal than ever before.
Unwanted takes the band in a different direction to the noirish goth glam of debut My Mind Makes Noises, and is different again from their 2021 follow-up Who Am I? While the latter leant into the low-rise jeans alt-rock aesthetic of the late 90s and early 2000s, Unwanted pushes on into skate-punk territory, delving into darker subject matter and ever more personal themes.
‘When the pandemic hit, playing live was taken away from us,’ says singer Heather Baron-Gracie. ‘I mean, a lot of things were taken away from everyone. But we really missed that element, and we knew that when we went back to playing live, we really wanted to just have fun with it. Hence why we went heavier. We didn’t really want to just stand still.’
There’s no danger of that. Unwanted buzzes with the red parts of life – defiance and hurt stark against sharp guitars. The third in a series of accomplished albums, Unwanted feels like the next step in a process of becoming for the band. Never ones to deliver something undercooked, on this album the band still manage to sound more developed than ever, more in control of the ride they’re on. ‘I feel like over time we’re starting to find our sound even more, and we wanted to sound more like a band this time around,’ says Heather. ‘That’s just because we’ve grown my confident as players.’
The band’s newfound confidence is not limited to the way they play their instruments, or the stage presence they want to convey. Their personal politics, too, have become more full-throated. Considering her personal journey as a songwriter, Heather notes that with each passing year she’s become bolder with the things she wants to say in her lyrics. ‘As the years go on, I think of more and more subjects to speak about, and I embrace subjects that I might not have embraced a few years ago,’ she says.
‘We’re a queer band, and I feel like it’s really important for us to use our platform and for us to speak to the community.'
Some of these things sit closer to home than others. Since the release of My Mind Makes Noises in 2018, the band have become more open publicly about their queer identities, speaking more firmly on the issues that effect the community. ‘We’re a queer band, and I feel like it’s really important for us to use our platform and for us to speak to the community,’ says Heather. ‘People just want to feel accepted in the end, so I think it’s really important to spread the message, especially through music and through media.’
‘I wasn’t ready on the first album to do it, but I’m definitely ready on the third one.’
Pale Waves are ready to own their power. While the album is, of course, called Unwanted, a golden thread of self-worth does run through its centre. It’s partly where the album’s anger springs from, as on opener and lead single Lies, which rails against poor treatment in a relationship.
‘The second album was very much about me falling in love and having an amazing time. We really wanted to do the opposite of that and embrace the darker subjects in life, like jealousy, vanity, anger, madness,’ says Heather.
Writing an album like that can bring out a mixed bag of emotions. Heather identifies Numb as a particularly difficult track to write, dealing as it does with depression and mental health.
‘I wanted to do it in the right manner,’ she says. ‘I wanted to give it purpose and do it well. We spent quite a long time on that one, getting it right. I didn’t want to do it in a cringey way.’
You’re So Vain on the other hand, a biting track perhaps unsurprisingly about narcissism and self-absorption, was like a bloodletting.
‘On the particular morning that we went into the studio, I was feeling very angry about multiple people in my life just because of the pure vanity and selfishness,’ says Heather. The song was finished within the day. Acknowledging that it shares a title with ‘such an iconic song’, Heather was still confident the band could pull off their own version of a self-obsession takedown. The result is uniquely Pale Waves, ominously dark and glinting at the same time.
While the album deals in serious topics across the board, one of the softer songs on the record, The Hard Way, allows the band to dial things back for a moment and be a little more introspective. The Hard Way stands out among the tracks as being particularly important for Pale Waves on a personal level, and touches on topics that strike close to home.
‘The Hard Way always had to be a single because it’s a really important song to us. I wrote it about a girl from my hometown who was being bullied, and she took her own life from that. I want to talk about that. I wanted to kind of influence, and spread the message of one, don’t be a fucking bully and two, just be kinder in general,’ Heather says. 'Be cautious and sensitive with words and actions, because everyone’s fragile at the end of the day and even though it might not seem like a big deal to you it’s a huge deal to someone else.’
While bullying and cruelty in general are issues across society, there’s a particular shade of it that can come through in the music scene. It comes with a sense of being observed.
'Sometimes, people try and be something else and its just not worth it, because in the end it’s gonna catch up to you. So we try and be as real as possible.'
‘Being in the music industry, there’s always someone talking about you, or there’s always someone analysing you,’ Heather says thoughtfully. ‘I do think people in general sometimes take it too far, and I feel like everyone needs to chill out a little bit. Just appreciate people and appreciate things, and not be so mean in general.’
Since the beginning, Pale Waves have had a dedicated fan base. As their careers have progressed, and as the band have become more open about issues that affect them, this community has only grown. You can tell at a glance when Pale Waves are in town. Heather seems proud of having cultivated that safe space, but for a band so focused on fostering kindness, the responsibility could easily become a weight. But Heather is sanguine.
‘I think there’s a sense of responsibility, but you can’t let it get to you too much. Because you’re only human, at the end of the day,’ she says. ‘I think being yourself is the most authentic thing you can do. Sometimes, people try and be something else and its just not worth it, because in the end it’s gonna catch up to you. So we try and be as real as possible.’
As they become more fully themselves on Unwanted, Pale Waves are undoubtedly moving ever close towards the real.