Since their 1996 debut, Nada Surf has seen its status change with each album. Their hit single “Popular” failed to garner the band any longterm mainstream success, which they shrugged off with the release of 2002’s Let Go. But through all their stages — from MTV cameos to indie heroes — frontman Matthew Caws’ gift for melody has remained firmly intact, allowing the band to churn out solid record after solid record. For a rock outfit often seen as a one-hit wonder, Nada Surf’s discography is nearly flawless.
It’s a trend that continues with their latest output, The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy, and thanks to a ubiquitous wave of ’90s nostalgia amongst the music industry, the band may finally get the critical and commercial respect it deserves. While their previous records have gotten progressively softer (perhaps explaining the increased lack of interest), Stars finds the group reinvigorated with a collection of 10 tunes full of measured distortion, crisp hooks, and Caws’ earnest tenor.
Opener “Clear Eye Clouded Mind” is driven by three sharpened power chords (not too sharp, mind you) laced together by Ira Elliot’s precision snare. The song forsakes buildup in favor of immediate fuzz, transporting one back to a time where having Ric Ocasek produce your album was synonymous with badassery. “Waiting For Something” and “The Moon Is Calling” pack further pop-rock punch with a tinge of new wave keyboards, while “When I Was Young” serves as the album’s bittersweet centerpiece, a slow burner that begins with twilight plucking reminiscent of The Weight Is A Gift and Lucky before ascending to the addicting alt-rock heights of Nada Surf’s earlier work, anchored by sweeping power chords and dramatic strings.
If Stars has one setback, it’s the lyrics, something that has been a consistent weak spot for the band. Caws is capable of turning an evocative phrase, but the occasional reliance on half-baked pop culture references such as Gilligan’s Island and vague, awkward statements like “It’s never too late for teenage dreams” (and even the album’s title) bring out a clunkiness that threatens to undercut the otherwise tightened musicality. But words aside, The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy could be the comeback for a band who deserves to be recognized as something much more than a mid-’90s punchline.
Essential Tracks: “Clear Eye Clouded Mind”, “When I Was Young”, and “Waiting For Something”