One of pop’s defining qualities has always been its appetite for constant transformation; after all, when you’re pushing 70, to attract new converts it pays to be constantly both new and intriguing.
Part of this process has been to absorb other variations of the form, sucking up their most common denominators and then getting rid of what the mainstream can’t use.
One example was the cloning of nineties alternative music and its reproduction into safer spaces, the passive aggression of Gen X fetishized with artists like Avril Lavigne’s faux rebelliousness exuding cool, if only in the specific confines of pre-pubescent orthodoxy.
Pale Waves aren’t anything as crass as that, but the Mancunian quartet are, despite some of their visual cues, a pop band, as anyone listening to their debut album My Mind Makes Noises would’ve found hard to deny.
For a while it looked like they’d be most famous for being on The 1975’s Dirty Hit label but, as is the case for so many artists in these weird times, quite a lot has happened between that period and now.
The most impactful (taking into account the now more run-of-the-mill problems like being unable to play live and having to delay the release of Who Am I? because of it) was a near fatal road accident when a bus travelling between gigs in Germany rolled into a ditch.
Whilst Ciara (drums), Hugo (guitar) and Charlie (bass) all survived without long term physical injuries, band leader Heather Baron-Gracie wasn’t present having already flown ahead, creating a latent emotional flashpoint that to everyone’s credit once talked over only served to make their mutual bonds stronger.
For her part, Baron-Gracie has chosen on Who Am I? to make, as the title suggests, some defining personal statements, addressing amongst other things issues of sexuality, gender and mental health.
Despite the slight change in guise, the foursome is perceptive enough to remember what they’re collectively still great at; opener Change, Easy and Wish U Were Here are all the sort of glossy, pristine stock on which their label-mates first built their reputation, while She’s My Religion turns up the defiance and gothic atmosphere by degree, but always with an air of control.
This admitted flirting with female icons old and new – Taylor Swift, Alanis Morrisette and, just as clearly, Lavigne herself – might appear to be a confession which didn’t really need to be made. Eventually however, the titular soul-searching Baron-Gracie promises works its way into stories beyond the narrow horizon of relationships.
In this more revealing state the epic closing title-track is all the self-examination we signed up for – the singer, ‘Drowning in my own mind/I’m being left behind’, while Tomorrow offers hope and You Don’t Own Me punchily takes on society’s chained thinking.
If the sentiments are heartfelt, then equally this is a level above their debut in every respect. But it’s also true that the unwritten rule applies; where all of pop’s strengths are also its weaknesses, the result being that the gravity of the things Baron-Gracie addresses sometimes become lost to their honeyed backdrop.
For Pale Waves, a traumatic event has both given them a chance to pause and to reevaluate what their music could be used to convey.
If Who Am I? comes loaded with compromises, they’re ones at least made equally from the head and the heart.