As soon as it kicks into gear, The WAEVE is framed as a conversation between two poetically inclined songwriters. “Hold the sky/ Inside your mouth/ Breathe your words/ Into my bones,” Rose Elinor Dougall, formerly of the Pipettes, sings on the haunting opener ‘Can I Call You’. Blur guitarist Graham Coxon then takes the lead first on the subsequent ‘Kill Me Again’, pleading, “Take me to your brightest sun/ Hold me fast beneath your hand/ I hang like a bird/ Above your sea and land.” The WAEVE may be a duo – Coxon and Dougall began their collaboration after meeting backstage at a socially distanced benefit concert in 2020, and have now started a family – but what makes their self-titled debut intriguing is that it often eschews the conventions of a duets album. Having established common ground, the pair seem less interested in simply bouncing ideas back and forth than coaxing each other to explore how far they can take them. This lends the songs a distinct air of playfulness, even if the overall atmosphere is inescapably one of impending doom.
You don’t have to compare and contrast these songs to get a sense of how Coxon and Dougall’s musical instincts collide; they allow each other’s voices to take up more space when necessary, but they also juxtapose them in subtle and compelling ways. A motorik pulse signals Coxon’s arrival on ‘Can I Call You’, introducing a fiery tension that takes the song in an unexpected direction and percolates throughout the LP. When Dougall sings of “All this weird energy/ Nowhere to put it” amid elegant synths and gentle percussion on ‘Sleepwalking’, you wonder if the song will erupt – but it’s not until its sixth and final minute that Coxon’s guitars sharpen it to a gleaming conclusion. They let the groove gain heft naturally, and it’s actually Coxon’s saxophone that does most of the heavy lifting alongside Dougall’s pensive vocals. It emerges, on songs like ‘All Along’, as an instrument at once soothing, wistful, and ominous, adding emotional texture to songs that might have otherwise felt listless without it.
For all their focus on space, the WAEVE don’t shy away from lush, cinematic arrangements, with half of the songs stretching over six minutes. ‘Drowning’ counters its dreaminess with a portentous sense of dread, layering instruments to the point of cacophony; the interplay between the duo’s voices, meanwhile, has never been more thrilling. But there are moments that don’t spring to life in the same way, drawing attention to lyrics that can feel trite in their apocalyptic reflections. The robotic post-punk of ‘Someone Up There’, with its chorus of “You’ve lost your power/ It’s all gone sour,” feels labored, even if its spikiness is refreshing in the context of the album. And though their voices once again complement each other on ‘Over and Over’, the song is so languid that it seems to lose faith in its own message: “Still we grow older and older and older/ But something feels new/ Constantly changing forever.”
It comes as somewhat of a surprise, then, that rather than capitalizing on the punk energy that drives much of it forward, The WAEVE ends with a series of similarly relaxed, jazz-inflected ballads. Those make better use of the duo’s talents and chemistry, however: while ‘Undine’ recycles a lot of the same lyrical ideas as ‘Over and Over’, its evocative use of brass, strings, and guitar, elevated by Coxon’s unusually heartfelt delivery, keep it engaging. The album may not have a strong enough concept to justify its musical grandiosity, but the sincerity that guides its final tracks feels earned. If the rest of the record is the sound of the duo probing each other, here they allow themselves to sit back and reflect. “Finding strange courage to say/ We’re getting deeper now,” Dougall admits on the closer, ‘You’re All I Want to Know’, gaze still locked forward.