April 25, 2022

Broad City, which ran from 2014 to 2019, was a madcap sitcom about the New York City exploits of two best friends, Abbi and Ilana. Dwelling in that mid-20s chaos zone of crappy apartments and crappier jobs, the two women loved weed, hip hop, daft schemes and, most of all, making each other laugh. It was half autobiography and half live-action cartoon. The plots and jokes were a blast but the core of the show was the ability of stars and creators Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer to dramatise their real-life friendship — the unfakeable pleasure they took from each other’s company. You didn’t so much watch them as hang out with them.

When the rock duo Wet Leg appeared out of nowhere last summer, they reminded me of Broad City, if the stars had lived in the Isle of Wight rather than New York’s outer boroughs and preferred indie-rock to hip hop. I’m happy to play the music-critic game of ticking off musical antecedents — Elastica, Pavement, Courtney Barnett — but my first impression was that I was watching a sitcom about two best friends who formed a band for a laugh. On the cover of their self-titled debut album, Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers have their backs to the camera, arms around each other, heads close together as if sharing a hilarious secret.

That album topped the UK album charts in its first week, outselling the rest of the top five put together — a field which included not just new albums by Father John Misty and Jack White, but platinum juggernauts Ed Sheeran and Olivia Rodrigo. That’s a pretty remarkable achievement for an indie-rock band, let alone one that didn’t exist in the public eye this time last year. What makes Wet Leg’s breakout especially pleasing is the sense that it could have gone either way after their debut single, Chaise Longue, was hollered about last summer by everyone from Iggy Pop and Dave Grohl to TikTok teens.

With its garage-band simplicity and absurdist chorus, Chaise Longue felt more like a sketch than a pilot episode. Their delightfully weird deadpan humour (“Is your mother worried? Would you like us to assign someone to worry your mother?”) is the kind of lyric-writing that makes an instant splash but doesn’t necessarily lead anywhere. I wondered if they would ultimately be an indie-disco novelty act like Art Brut and Electric Six or, like LCD Soundsystem and Arctic Monkeys, a band whose initial offering of observational gags about deluded hipsters was just the tip of the iceberg. Jokes get people’s attention, but now what?

Not to worry. Wet Leg’s album is not just the year’s most briskly efficient hook machine; it has depth. Their superpower is making disappointment sound sprightly. They may be thoroughly jaded on Angelica (“The ambience was overrated at the party”) and I Don’t Wanna Go Out (“Now I’m almost 28, still getting off my stupid face”), and the line of lousy boyfriends may stretch out to the crack of doom, but these cherry bombs of melody and noise will surely soundtrack a lot of good times this year by returning indie-rock to first principles: life plus guitars.

Teasdale’s bulging quiver of tart put-downs and goofy innuendos suggests someone who sneaked out of the party with her mate to build her own kind of fun: a private garden where wallflowers can bloom. Unlike their myriad evil exes, hungry for cultural and erotic capital, Wet Leg remind us that you can form a band as a lark, a whim, a public extension of a private bond. As Zoe Williams wrote in the Guardian, “they have taken their friendship and set it to music”. Everything’s rubbish except them.

The song Supermarket, about going shopping while “too high”, is uncannily similar to the Broad City episode where Abbi and Ilana take mushrooms and freak out in Whole Foods. As the creators of The Monkees realised back in 1966, bands often resemble TV shows: when the personalities are big enough, you feel like you’re tuning in to the colourful adventures of a gang of friends, although the genres vary. Oasis was a soap opera, with Noel and Liam as Grant and Phil, Nirvana a tragic HBO miniseries and Madness a Saturday morning kids’ show. Metallica, at least as seen in the documentary Some Kind of Monster, is a workplace sitcom. And it was hard to watch Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary Get Back without thinking of it as a reality TV show: Big Brother with the world’s most fascinating housemates. The story of a band can be as potent as the sound.

Conversely, there are TV shows that feel like bands. Lena Dunham’s Girls, which debuted almost exactly a decade ago, had a classic four-person line-up. Marnie was the singer, beautiful and vain. Hannah would be the guitarist who writes all the songs and causes most of the problems. Jessa had the dry cool of a bass-player, while Shoshanna could be the space cadet on drums. The arc of the show suggested a band coming together and falling apart without ever actually managing to get anywhere. I suppose this makes Adam (played by Adam Driver) the singer-songwriter bro who goes on to enjoy far more solo success than his female peers.

The excitement attending Wet Leg reminds me a little of the initial hullabaloo around Girls, not to mention Fleabag, Insecure and, most recently, the Norwegian movie The Worst Person in the World. There is still something sharp and fresh about witty, charismatic young women honestly describing their messy lives, and it’s about time a band struck that chord. Your twenties can feel like a tumultuous comedy drama in which your personal narrative is in flux and fun coexists with anxiety. Anyone who can capture the essence of that wild ride, on screen or in song, is on to something.

The song that pipped Wet Leg’s Chaise Longue to pole position in the Guardian’s best songs of 2021, and likewise went viral on social media, was I Do This All the Time by Rebecca Lucy Taylor, aka Self Esteem. Taylor is in her mid-30s, with the modestly successful indie band Slow Club behind her, but she explores similarly unstable terrain — regrettable late-night texts, awkward parties, social pressure to get a grip and settle down — in the form of a spoken-word internal monologue which summons universal emotions from extremely specific storytelling. For example, the narrator talks wearily about going to an ex-boyfriend’s birthday drinks, “to congratulate you being the age I already thought you were, or not, I don’t know/ It’s a miracle I’ve remembered at all”. When I first heard it, I thought not of other songs but of the Billie Piper TV show I Hate Suzie.

It’s no surprise that Taylor is friends with the show’s writer, Lucy Prebble. In a conversation for the Observer last year, Taylor told Prebble that the song emerged from a period of falling short and feeling that she had nothing to lose by being entirely herself: “I stopped trying to have a hit and then had one.” Wet Leg have a similar story. Teasdale and Chambers both dropped out of a music course at Isle of Wight College, where they met, and both had emphatically unsuccessful solo careers before deciding to make music together. “I just wanted to do it for the fun of it,” Teasdale has said.

The almost self-sabotaging silliness of their name illustrates Wet Leg’s refreshing nonchalance about success, which feels like a throwback to Nineties slacker culture in an era of performative striving and self-actualisation. Granted, you don’t get a manager and a deal with Domino Records if you have no ambition at all, but there is nothing cooler than appearing as if you could take it or leave it. What really matters is making that statement. All the TV shows I’ve mentioned are about confusion, failure and working out what to do with your life when you suspect you’ve already blown it. “Now that we have all grown up, all my friends have given up,” Wet Leg sing on Too Late Now.

But what happens when you run out of failure? One key difference between bands and TV shows is that bands can’t deny their success by hiding behind characters. Even when Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer were winning awards and getting movie roles, the Abbi and Ilana of Broad City remained goofball underachievers fumbling their way towards their 30s. But it’s hard to insist on the ordinary once the lifestyle gap between band and audience becomes unignorably wide. The Streets, Pulp and the Arctic Monkeys all became detached from the everyday scenes that they documented with such a keen eye and were forced to evolve their songwriting, with varying degrees of success. You can’t keep singing about bad parties when everyone knows you’re getting invited to great ones.

I suspect that Teasdale and Chambers have the wit and tunes to see them through. Perhaps they will find new experiences to be amusingly disappointed by. But worrying about where they go next runs counter to the fizzy, here-we-are vivacity of Wet Leg’s debut. My favourite moment comes during Ur Mum when Teasdale says, “OK, I’ve been practising my longest and loudest scream, OK, here we go, 1, 2, 3…” The scream, like the album, is silly and cathartic and genuinely desperate all at once. The video is framed as a traditional Eighties sitcom, with you-have-been-watching credits in yellow type. Even though I haven’t seen them live yet, I already feel like I’m watching their show.