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Wet Leg’s lack of defined image in a persona-clad era of pop is a refreshing break

A well-deserved Grammy win for Best Alternative Album has cemented the impact Wet Leg has had over just one year. Their impact comes from their music, tone and style – all inherently broad when compared to contemporary artists. Whether that is enough to steer Wet Leg through with longevity remains to be seen. What is clear though is that few artists have managed to conjure a broad image and not whittle it down to a specific one. Fewer still have managed to coast with any real artistic success, a real cementing of legacy, without the use of a unique style or effective image. Wet Leg has yet to find an image that works for their music. Their lyrical specifics and intonations of theme come from something an image would be hard-pressed to reflect because it is a fundamentally broad topic.  

So far then, the indie-clad, Autumnal-feeling sensibilities have been an image that does not pair with the music because it feels as though no effort was made to understand the impact. It does not feel real or fresh. That may be a good thing in the case of commercial viability though, as it has worked time and time again for artists in the spotlight and managing a chart-topping rise. Objectively, even the faux image is an image. Harry Styles may project former pop stars onto his own branding, and however false or fed through the marketing machine it may be, it is still an image. Wet Leg has attempted a similar projection to Styles’ efforts. They have not conjured it in their music, only in their licensing and presentation as the loveably awkward, indie powers who appeal to IPA drinkers and university students. Their music, hidden behind the image, is far from that.  

Contemporaries and equally successful musicians of the same genre and year of their cultural boom have adapted something culturally specific to their tone and style. Lyrically too. Sam Fender has adhered to a genuine love of the North East and has incorporated his beloved Newcastle United into a country-wide brand rather than a pocket of football culture. Yard Act have presented themselves in a similar vein to Wet Leg but mark themselves as political punk-like rockers with a spit back at the world. For as great as Wet Leg’s music is, it does not have the biting triumphs of something socially common beyond that of life, sex, and indie-living ways. Whether that is enough to last as an artist is yet to be seen. It is a fine line between being as memorable as Pulp and being a one-hit wonder like Two Door Cinema Club. Chaise Longue’s longevity rests on the fence, a grand song but overplayed and now flirting with the “popular enough to hate,” crowds.

Maybe the key to Wet Leg is having no defined image at all. The opening track of their self-titled debut album, Being In Love, marked itself as a projection of hope. They are whatever their listener wants them to be, and that puts Wet Leg in a rare place if they can keep that momentum going. Wet Leg is unique for its hooks and lyrical style, rather than anything an image, potential, accidental or otherwise, could possibly manage. Wet Leg does not have an image that can be appropriated, no matter what they throw at their audience. They base their style on the oddities of their expressive lyrical talents, a gamble that has seen warm beer, Buffalo 66 and modern-day colloquialisms, intertextuality and presentation cross over into the pop mainstream.  

Wet Leg’s lack of a defined image in a persona-clad, heavy era for pop musicians and indie artists is a refreshing break from the message-ready music that can and often will overtake musical variety. Harsh tones and brilliant lyricisms are inherently tied to the downtrodden times of Yard Act’s spoken-word style, the qualities of Fender rest on the North East pride and growing up in the grim north. It gives Wet Leg an important perspective popularised as the implications of art as a tool for learning and justice become a focus and not a feature. George Romero had that trouble with Dawn of the Dead. Re-evaluation of art will draw out and drag through Wet Leg’s discography, present and future, as it did for the consumerist criticism floated toward Romero’s zombie classic. Re-evaluation is how an artist cements an image as they play around with style and substance. 

David Bowie did much of that. Works that initially lacked impact, as Wet Leg’s debut B-Side suffers from, may be brought to the forefront in future. Let’s Dance and Young Americans, the re-evaluation of intent and artistic qualities. But the image was the front for Bowie’s work even if it was unaccepted. Hunky Dory stemmed from the images of Marlene Dietrich. Somewhere deep within Wet Leg’s work is the inference of an image or artistic claim. Friendship drives the hugging album cover. Their lack of image, facing away from the camera, could be an expression not of a lack of image but of a slow burn into something that will define the outfit, for the sake of the audience more than the artist.  

Dreamy pop is their vision and finding an image to be associated with that is much harder than it would seem. Lush and brighter colours, glowing early morning skies, those are the images that come through with Styles’ imagery – but it is meaningless when siphoned off from others. Wet Leg’s lack of image is far more powerful than Styles’ image because the former is unique in its unformed state, the surprise is that Wet Leg is at the forefront without an established image. It is fresh and exciting to see that. More power to them. They have cut through with quality musicianship alone but the longevity of it may depend on their image. From anywhere between Franz Ferdinand to The Hoosiers, a lack of genuine image may stop Wet Leg from moving their sound onto the next level. Nobody makes it to the top without an image, although if they do it is thanks to swathes of marketing suits only Ed Sheeran can afford. Wet Leg is proving to be a bright light and liberating freedom few artists are capable of dealing with.  

Broad creativity marks the B-Side on reflection a year later, and it is there the clarity of broadness comes through. Drugs, drink, sex, and anything else that was perceived as popular. It is earworm music Wet Leg have made. Well-produced, slick and weighty pieces that run out of steam by the end of the album. What their image can pull from that is yet to be decided, but Wet Leg appear to be headed for little in the way of specifics anytime soon. Whether nationally understood imagery is what works, from the supermarket to the everyday anxieties that can be easily explained even by those who have not experienced them, is yet to be seen in the longer term. Other artists did not have the explosive debut Wet Leg has overseen. But they had kindled an image before that boom, and still do. Wet Leg is in no rush to explore what theirs could be, and the empty shell their specifics and talent provide in particulars of lyrical power, are refreshing.  

Ewan Gleadow
Ewan Gleadow
Editor in Chief at Cult Following | News and culture journalist at Clapper, Daily Star, NewcastleWorld, Daily Mirror | Podcast host of (Don't) Listen to This | Disaster magnet

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