The novelty song is a dying art form. Deliberately silly, often profoundly annoying earworms by unestablished artists rarely factor into today’s pop universe. Instead, they have been replaced by the viral hit: a song by a nascent star that swiftly rises from obscurity to ubiquity, sating the appetite for newness and surprise with a bit more coolness and class. Although the viral hit is implicitly attention-grabbing, it doesn’t tend to be gimmicky – usually the accompanying social media craze (TikTok dance, or back in the day, Twitter meme template) takes care of that.
Occasionally, there comes a viral hit that dances on the edge of novelty territory – comedic, a bit weird and infuriatingly catchy – but, crucially, not without serious musical panache. In 2019, that song was Old Town Road, the country-trap smash by Nicki Minaj stan turned musician Lil Nas X. Last year, it was minimalist indie number Chaise Longue by Isle of Wight duo Wet Leg, AKA late twentysomethings Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers. Over a monotonous bass line and sirening post-punk riff, a deadpan Teasdale intoned a series of non sequiturs – from suggestive Mean Girls quotes (“would you like us to assign someone to butter your muffin?”) to suggestive allusions to academia (“I went to school and I got the big D”). The chorus – essentially, “on the Chaise Longue” repeated ad infinitum in staccato style – combined with the vaguely gross-out band name sealed its strange, adolescent appeal.
At 13m Spotify streams, the numbers aren’t exactly at Drivers License levels (that particular viral hit is on more than 1.3bn streams), but the hype Chaise Longue has generated on both sides of the Atlantic is far from negligible – they came second in the BBC’s influential Sound of 2022 poll and have appeared on several late-night US chatshows. Yet there is a price to pay for such teasing flamboyance. Firstly, you risk being seen as an irritant – I can’t be the only one who found Chaise Longue’s irreverence rather ersatz, and its supposedly witty innuendoes more like sub-Carry On inanity. Secondly, you introduce a certain amount of scepticism towards your first proper body of work. Are Wet Leg just a flash in the pan?
While their eponymous debut album will no doubt disappoint fans of endless double entendres, it may just convert the cynics. Much like Lil Nas X did with his debut, the pair don’t repeat the style of their brash breakthrough hit, but have instead produced a far more subtle and conventional record. Wet Leg – mostly recorded in cocoon-like circumstances before Chaise Longue’s release, with help from producer du jour Dan Carey (Black Midi, Fontaines DC) – is a collection of 90s and 00s-era indie that is by turns dreamy, lush, hooky and thunderous, and layered with lyrics saturated with millennial disaffection, anxiety and overwhelm.
The tracks that bookend the album are among the best examples of this approach: opener Being in Love – in which a satisfyingly original twist on the idea of infatuation as mental instability is relayed through the medium of scuzzy/delicate rock – and closer Too Late Now, a stormy tribute to opportunities passing you by and alienation setting in. The latter has a gratifyingly relatable self-doubt break, when the music drops out to allow Teasdale to document her existential angst as it spreads into the track she is currently performing: “I’m not sure if this is a song / I don’t even know what I’m saying … I’m not sure if this is the kind of life that I saw myself living.”
The quarter-life crisis – rendered in messy, anxiety-riven, circular thought patterns – is perhaps the unifying motif of Wet Leg. On the psychedelic I Don’t Wanna Go Out, whose recurring riff nods to Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World, our narrator is “almost 28, still getting off my stupid face.” On Angelica, sourly chiming guitars soundtrack a woman miserably going through the motions at a party; Oh No reflects on the infinite scroll while only just managing to suppress screeching panic.
There are more in-yer-face tracks – with its hummed bass line and ambling raucousness, Supermarket’s tale of being stoned while doing the big shop recalls first-wave British punk in spirit and subject matter, while Wet Dream archly rejects the idea of being the object of masturbatory fantasies – but there is a maudlin air to these, too. The music is more muted and bittersweet than on Chaise Longue, as are the jokes – which actually make sense this time. That Teasdale and Chambers are able to treat great lines like throwaway remarks – as on the sweetly incantatory Loving You, which features the jibe: “I hope you choke on your girlfriend” – is proof they have wit to spare.
You have to concede that in the content-saturated streaming age, arriving with a bit of goonish novelty probably isn’t a bad way to kickstart a career. Wet Leg have certainly got people listening, and by channelling their sense of humour and showmanship into a series of tracks that are far more nuanced and three-dimensional than the infuriatingly repetitive song that made their name, they’ve ensured their debut album is well worth hearing – again and again and again.