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Wavves, ‘Afraid of Heights’ (Mom + Pop/Warner Bros.)

SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: March 26, 2013
Label: Mom + Pop/Warner Bros.

At the time of Nevermind‘s circa-’92 zenith, a host of underground bands riffing off Nirvana would’ve been unforgivably gauche — as craven as aping the treacly Aerosmith power ballads that bracketed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on radio and MTV playlists. No, the Kurt Cobain worshippers that followed in his wake were uniformly terrible: greasy, macho-dick types (Candlebox, Bush, et al.) who represented the furthest possible thing from Cobain’s impossible cool. And 20-plus years later, the New Nirvana of Now can’t be rock, because no matter how platinum fun. goes, rock cannot be reinstated to that kind of relevancy or dominance. Today, our Cobain is probably Frank Ocean, if we’re lucky.

It’s unclear whether Wavves frontboy Nathan Williams is hoping to list towards Cobainhood, but he seems plenty happy to hone coulda-been Nirvana licks to perfection on Afraid of Heights, which, despite being an album of all-new material, still feels like the Incesticide of his canon. His study feels a bit scientific on songs like “I Can’t Dream” and “Lunge Forward” — aside from the familiar melodic bites, there’s the hitch in his voice before he really begins to holler, the almost-dumb lyrics that almost mean something. That same litheness that tips to a love of new wave. The steroidal roaring of distorted choruses.

Furthermore, on “Demon to Lean On,” Williams croons in a stoned whine about “holding a gun to my head” while cycling through riffs and guitar tones that evoke, yes, In Utero‘s “Dumb,” showing that his obsession goes far beyond musical matters — it’s a Cobain lust that encompasses both his life and his death, the legacy and the hole; a totem of junkie manqué turned into grunge Morrison by the past few years of ’80s babies’ ’90s rehash. This is a strange, sad listen; the songs are both fun and discomfiting in their perfect familiarity.

And so, Afraid of Heights leaves us with a vexing question: Is Nathan Williams worthy of the legacy? Or is he just the sum of some borrowed parts? His gifts undeniably go beyond mere mimicry, but Afraid of Heights does little beyond confirming the King of the Beach’s abilities as a conjurer, soothing our nostalgic mourning and coming as close to anyone can to slaking our thirst for the flesh-and-blood Nirvana Future we never got to have.