Album Review: Austin Meade – ‘Waves’

Waves

The short version: ‘Waves’ often finds itself on the edges of burnout in ways that feel depressing, angry, and most of all, cathartic. It also finds Austin Meade truly coming into his own as an artist to craft his own individual, artistic statement. 

  • Favorite tracks: “Waves,” “Pay Phone,” “Mountain Past,” “Colorblind,” “Brooklyn,” “Bad Habits,” “Savannah”
  • Least favorite track: “7 Letters”
  • Rating: 8/10

The long version: As weird as it is to say, there are consequences to having an endless stream of music at our fingertips. For consumers, the modern day presents the problem of the tyranny of choice, or rather, the anxiety we feel when presented with too many options. For artists, while there are greater opportunities and alternative avenues for people to connect with them, it also makes it much harder to stand out from the pack.

It’s been five years since Austin Meade released his last full-length album, Chief of the Sinners, with only the 2016 EP, Heartbreak Coming to tide us over until now. In interviews leading up to this album, Meade discussed his growth as an artist, and while that can all turn into smoke and mirrors, Waves is truly the moment that finds Meade becoming a forced to be reckoned with in the independent scene.

Waves is a heavy album, and that extends toward both its sound and lyrical content. While most albums thus far in 2019 have been fairly lightweight and fun, Waves is an album that finds itself on the edge of exhaustion and despair, with no real levity in sight.

While Meade is primarily known for working with many Texas-Country artists, his sonic palette pulls mostly from old school country and rock. There’s certainly a ’70s and ’80s flair to it (as evidenced by even his own look), but it doesn’t feel stuck in the past. While not my favorite track, “7 Letters” feels like a modern day honky-tonk and stomping rock number that serves as an outlier on the album.

Waves instead often finds itself in a reflective state, with a heavier focus on strong guitar licks, rich melodic focus and added reverb on some tracks to sell its lyrical content. After the thunderous “Pay Phone,” the album settles into a nice groove starting with “Savannah” until that cathartic end with the title track.

Despite how depressing Waves can get though, the aforementioned elements also make it a compelling listen. We’ll address this more when we dive into the lyrical content, but the reverb added to to tracks like “Lift Me Up” and “Coming Down” add nicely to a feeling of feeling lost and losing control of one’s self. Meanwhile, something like the intimate “Mountain Past” with its moodier guitar lick and soft piano comes through nicely.

Albums that center around burnout and pain aren’t exactly uncommon no matter what genre you turn to, but Waves explores it in different varieties. At times, the stories aren’t his despite how excellently they connect with the overall album. Other times, they feel deeply personal to Meade, especially when he explores them from a musician’s perspective.

And unlike albums where everything wraps up nicely by its end, Waves doesn’t quite center around that. There’s no relief in sight for a single father raising his children who has to resort to dealing drugs since his normal job doesn’t pay enough to support them on “Pay Phone.” It’s a Breaking Bad-esque monster of a track that doesn’t end with a happy conclusion; only the burden of a secret this man carries.

But if the despair on Waves stems from anything, it’s often the struggle that comes with trying to balance life as an artist on the road with a normal life. “Savannah” finds him running into an old flame who abruptly abandoned him while he was in a downward spiral. “Lift Me Up” finds him looking for answers and a vice for when the woman in question here cheats on him.

But Waves also doesn’t spend its time pointing fingers at others. If anything, most of the blame Meade allots is to either himself or his characters. “Pay Phone” is an example of a stupid decision the father knows he can’t take back. Meanwhile, “Growing Pains” finds Meade dealing the frustrations of growing older and realizing he can’t blame his problems on others. You eventually have to own up to them in your own way.

And that’s what the second half of this album mainly finds itself dealing with; the consequences of all those actions. “Mountain Past” is one the more intimate, moodier tracks on the album, where Meade’s sincere delivery sells the simple sentiment of wanting someone back quite well. “Bad Habits” finds himself asking, in one of the best lyrics of the year thus far, “how long until I realize the one holding the shovel is me,” where he digs himself into further trouble.

And it’s not like there isn’t some relief here. “Brooklyn” finds him attaining temporary happiness … at least until his life on the road eventually collides with her dreams. It’s what makes the title track such a joy to hear by its end. Unlike the majority of the album which unravels in a low-key, almost depressing manner, the title track comes at you full force. The cascading guitars and drums give way to one big anthem where Meade takes all of life’s beatings, sees the storm brewing and just flips a metaphorical middle finger into the air. Everything isn’t alright for the characters on this album, but they damn sure won’t give up until that final wave drops down to consume them. Even then, they’ll find a way to fight. It’s a relatable sentiment for anyone dealing with the throes of it all and finding their own way to cope with it, not necessarily following a set of instructions.

If there’s any criticisms for Waves though, it’s that individual moments on the album stand out more as helpful to the album’s cohesion rather than strong tracks themselves. “Lift Me Up” and “Coming Down”are the most obvious examples. They’re both good tracks in their own right, but they also feel more generic in execution compared to some of the fantastic story tracks we get here.

Vocally, while Meade himself seems more confident in himself and has come into his own, his voice can also feel a tad lower in the mix than it otherwise should at points, leading to times where he can feel drowned out (perhaps that’s the point). But if there’s any weak link to this album, it’s “7 Letters,” a gritty, but otherwise off-kilter track where the story doesn’t come together and revolves more around attitude than pure feeling.

But as a whole, Waves is one of the most complete albums I’ve heard all year. It’s an album that’s an easy sell for country and rock fans as well as being an incredibly thought-provoking listen. Despite the heaviness that comes with the album though, the fantastic instrumental and melodic work is also what makes it an album I keep returning to. Waves is all about finding your own path with whatever you do, and considering it’s been a long time coming to get to this excellent album, I’d say Meade is certainly on the right one.

(Decent 8/10)

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