It was December 2020 when Rose Elinor Dougall suggested she and Graham Coxon should write a song together, ostensibly for her fourth solo album. They’d met only briefly since Dougall was a Pipette and, huddling for a smoke outside a socially distanced benefit for victims of that summer’s Beirut warehouse explosion, they had little idea that within two years they’d make their first album together, even less a baby.
Under normal circumstances, this brief encounter might have led nowhere, but, with another lockdown looming, time was in generous supply, and both were at a crossroads, personally and creatively. They began exchanging messages, testing each other’s musical boundaries, and, with common ground established, convened a month later amid the pandemic’s renewed desolation, beginning their collaboration soon afterwards. It took mere weeks to realise these meetings weren’t about a single song; they were about forming a band, on equal terms. And make no mistake: The Waeve is a band.
They illustrate this powerfully with opener “Can I Call You”, on which the individual hallmarks of Dougall’s and Coxon’s best work collide, then ignite. Dougall emerges first, seductively if pensively, to a doomy piano and submerged percussion, but once a synth starts pulsing with the urgency of Radiohead’s “Ful Stop” the song takes off with motorik efficiency, Coxon’s guitar wailing like Robert Fripp’s on Bowie’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). They’re stopped in their tracks by multi-tracked blasts of a saxophone which has been squeaking in the background for quite some time, before, within moments, they’re casting spells in a gobby sprechgesang suited to this re-energised gallop. Then, abruptly, the tune slams to a halt.
Similar tensions dominate The Waeve, shared values blurring what might otherwise be familiar, jarring styles. Indeed, given how Dougall specialises in ornate but soberly sophisticated pop and Coxon in, well, whatever takes his fancy, tension is its lifeblood. Trade-offs are rarely sanctioned, with this instead again about testing boundaries. So,
if the mood’s often ‘tasteful’ – a pejorative word previously used flippantly by Coxon to describe Dougall’s tastes – that’s never such that refined classiness can’t accommodate more mischievous tendencies.
Their contrasting inclinations thus rub off on one another throughout, with their vocals notably displaying unanticipated qualities. The longest track, “Undine” – whose strings anchor a journey in and out of a swelling storm of burbling synths and ugly guitars – brings out a hitherto rarely heard sensitivity in Coxon, as does the sedate “Over And Over” (think Lambchop’s “Nashville Parent”), while he’s uncommonly assertive on “Drowning”, at least once its velveteen waltz has been overcome by a saturated malevolence. Dougall, too – as on “Can I Call You” – is tougher than ever amid “Someone Up There”’s determined post-punk, while “All Along”’s expanding folk-rock provokes a conspicuously unworldly innocence.
Furthermore, Dougall’s academic desire for subtle complexity finds common ground with Coxon’s unpretentious disposition in their restless, Radiohead-like quest for unpredictability. It was she who, despite her antipathy to his beloved Van Der Graaf Generator, encouraged his use of saxophone, and it’s as vital here – squawking through “Kill Me Again”, lending the lovely “Sleepwalking” an early Roxy Music edginess, reinforcing “All Along”s growing menace with sinister drones – as his guitars, whether they’re providing cultured licks on “Over And Over” or going all Thin Lizzy on “Sleepwalking”.
Coxon and Dougall combine forces, in other words, willing one another to take risks, basking in the ensuing, revelatory freedom, and studiously avoiding the temptations of what Lee Hazlewood called “girl boy songs”, with their narratives, double entendres and subversive stereotypes. There’s certainly no “Leather And Lace” here, and only one ‘traditional’ duet, the polished, doo-wop flavoured, out-of-character closer, “You’re All I Want To Know”, whose “I ain’t letting you go-woah-woah-woah” motif is as likely to draw comparisons with John Travolta and Olivia Newton John as Patsy Cline. To be fair, neither’s terribly close.
It’s tempting to search for clues to Coxon and Dougall’s romance, especially given this happy ending. But The Waeve is shot through instead with disintegrating relationships, glimpses of a mythic England, battles of instinct over intellect, and questions over the ties that bind us (and otherwise). If there’s one overarching theme, it’s merely to take back control, one way or another. Far better, then, to focus on the ambitiously structured, lovingly arranged nature of these unhurriedly crafted songs full of bona fide thrills, unexpected twists, and an elegant but never gratuitous grandeur. Ironically, the only thing likely to hold back The Waeve is parenthood.