Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER
Every light in the room went to black, and a buzz of distortion grew into a thundering roar until overhead lights bathed the room in red, and the goth Britpop band Pale Waves took the stage. Surrounding a pale-faced black-lipsticked Heather Baron-Gracie were her bandmates – a pair of lanky indie boys Charlie Wood and Hugo Silvani, and fellow goth queen and Pale Waves co-founder Ciara Doran. Soon that droning background distortion morphed into the synthy build at the start of “Television Romance,” prompting Baron-Gracie to stomp around in robotic doll-like dance moves.
The dramatic contrast between complete darkness and a stage doused in deep red light cycled through for each song, as Pale Waves progressed through “Eighteen,” “New Year’s Eve,” and “Red” – all off of their debut album My Mind Makes Noises, which came out in September. Each track is its own tragic love story, the kind that you can imagine Baron-Gracie scribbling into a diary with pictures of young Robert Smith lookalikes pasted in between tear-stained words of heartbreak. This emo sensitivity isn’t what one would expect from the overtly goth lead singer, whose stringy black hair, platform shoes, and eyes shrouded in dark shadow make her look like 2018’s incarnation of Siouxsie Sioux.
But despite the sometimes sickeningly sweet songs of young love, the music behind the words does take influence from goth rock and new wave post-punk in a way that’s not unsimilar to fellow Manchester natives, the 1975. In fact, Matty Healy is one of Pale Waves’ biggest fans, and his help in editing and producing their music has certainly accelerated their recent rise to fame. With him, Pale Waves refined their fusion of pop and rock, hard-edged goth and vulnerable sensitivity, in a combination of drum hits and guitar hooks that is enticingly danceable.
Sometimes, however, this back and forth can get confusing. While playing a song, Baron-Gracie would stare out at the crowd like a stupefied zombie, her jerky dance moves adding to this robotic and unnatural stiffness. But during in-between moments, she was ebullient with love for the crowd, encouraging fans to sing along and raise their hands, telling the room over and over again how much she appreciated us all. At one point, she even brought out the tour photographer to take pictures of her with the crowd in the background, waving her hands about in an effort to make fans look more fun.
Nonetheless, these cheesy performance antics were charming. Pale Waves’ music isn’t markedly deep or revolutionary in its style or lyricism, but it is certainly a fresh take on the sad-pop that generations of young lovers have always turned to in moments of romantic angst and unrequited emotions. Baron-Gracie sings of the most foolish kind of love – one that offers its life so easily and stupidly that a lack of its return is almost guaranteed. Sometimes the mysteries of love and rejection are profound, especially as we grow older. But other times, our uncertainties are as simple as the questions Baron-Gracie wondered about in last night’s closing song, “There’s A Honey.” And when that’s the case, Pale Waves will be there to dance through the pain with you. — SOPHIE BURKHOLDER