As proclamations of supremacy go, it’s not quite Jesus walking into the temple and declaring himself the messiah, but for an indie rocker in the summer of 2010, anointing yourself king of the beach was an act of extreme confidence. Lo-fi guitar bands like Beach Fossils, Best Coast, and Real Estate had helped to steer the zeitgeist into the surf. The previous year’s chillwave movement was still going strong. Within indie’s more NPR-friendly chambers, the Beach Boys had emerged as a dominant influence for the likes of Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes, Animal Collective, and even some groups without creature-inspired names. So when Nathan Williams metaphorically strode out onto the sand and planted his flag, it was a loaded gesture, especially coming from a guy who’d spent much of his brief stint in the spotlight as a pariah and a laughingstock.
Wavves, Williams’ one-man recording project turned rock band, emerged out of San Diego in 2008 and by early 2009 had become one of the most polarizing forces in underground music. Some rejected Wavves’ music as poorly recorded, simplistic, and overly repetitive (titles on sophomore album Wavvves included “Beach Demon,” “Beach Goth,” “Surf Goth,” “Summer Goth,” “California Goths,” “Sun Opens My Eyes,” and “Gun In The Sun”). Fellow druggy lo-fi rockers Psychedelic Horseshit made “WAVVES SUXX” T-shirts and dismissed Williams as a fraud presenting a generic take on a trendy sound. Our own report from SXSW 2009 identified the band as a “divisive” presence who everyone at the fest had strong opinions about. Yet Wavves had earned the support of influential record labels like Woodsist and De Stijl, and in the weeks leading up to SXSW, Wavvves elicited raves, including Best New Music honors from Pitchfork and a grade-A review from The A.V. Club.
All this positive and negative attention propelled Williams to instant infamy, and by the end of May he was melting down on stage at Primavera Sound after ingesting several of the substances from Josh Homme’s “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer” recipe. “Honest truth is this has all happened so fast,” he wrote at the time, “and I feel like the weight of it has been building for months now with what seems like a never ending touring and press schedule which includes absolutely zero time to myself.” Williams seemed to have been chewed up and spit out by the hype machine within the span of less than a year, potentially washed up before his 23rd birthday. Instead, by July he was on the comeback trail, to the extent that can be said of an artist just one year into his career.
With King Of The Beach, released 10 years ago today, Williams bounced all the way back and then some. The album was a massive leap in every respect, one that erased his reputation as a cautionary tale and left no doubt about his talent. Wavves were now a proper rock ‘n’ roll band, with Williams backed by drummer Billy Hayes and bassist Stephen Pope — guys who’d recently played with the late Jay Reatard and thus had experience infusing poppy guitar songs with snotty punk energy. They’d recorded in a proper studio, too, decamping to producer Dennis Herring’s Sweet Tea Recording in Oxford, Mississippi. Over the years Herring had worked with a random assortment of artists including Modest Mouse, Buddy Guy, Jars Of Clay, Counting Crows, Mutemath, the Innocence Mission, and Camper Van Beethoven. He’d also done a record with the Hives, so he knew something about how to produce shit-kicking rock songs with pop appeal, i.e. exactly the kind of colorfully visceral music Williams was writing at the time.
King Of The Beach just bursts from the speakers, gleefully loud and catchy as hell despite exploring the same depressive subject matter that defined Williams’ previous albums. Although still emphatically on-trend, he was channeling a timeless continuum of influences: Brian Wilson and his rival Phil Spector’s ’60s pop classics — multiple songs borrowed the iconic “Be My Baby” drumbeat — but also a lineage of pop-punk icons from the Ramones and Buzzcocks to Nirvana and Green Day. The second half of the tracklist suffers from dated attempts to re-create Merriweather Post Pavilion and similar quirky detours that represent a moment in blog-rock better left in the past. Fortunately, King Of The Beach mostly comprises power chords crashing in from every direction and hooks galore, an approach that has endured through the decades and the mode that has always suited Wavves best.
Williams was clearly in a deflated but defiant state of mind when he wrote the album. “You’re never gonna stop me!” he announces on the title track, a rejoinder to his haters delivered with so much oomph it can hardly be denied. “My own friends hate my guts,” he laments on the droning, drum-machine-powered gem “Green Eyes” before concluding, “So what? Ah, so what? Who gives a fuck?” On “Super Soaker” he delves a little deeper into self-pity — “I still feel stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid!” — but the bashed-out accompaniment is such a breathless rush that the song comes off like a triumph. Ditto “Take On The World,” on which Williams posits “I hate myself, man, but who’s to blame?” and “I still hate my music, it’s all the same.” Both that one and the self-explanatory “Idiot” are essentially Shins songs with the levels pushed up into the red and energy to match.
And then there’s “Post Acid,” King Of The Beach’s magnificent lead single, on which Williams giddily retreats into a drug trip and/or romantic fling without turning down the dynamic intensity. Although haunted by misery on its fringes, it’s one of the most purely joyous moments on the album, a milestone single in this era of endless chemically altered seaside reverie. “I’m just havin’ fun,” Williams repeats calmly, readying listeners for the beachy indie-rock equivalent of the EDM drops that were becoming a mainstream sensation at the time. When it hits, it really hits: “With you-ou-ou-ou-ou-ouuuu!” stretched out into a runaway-rocket melody while the rhythm section races along. Whereas so much music from this milieu dissolved into vapor upon impact, songs like this one exploded like fireworks over the ocean — celebratory shows of force from a fuckup turned conquering monarch.