I admire Nada Surf’s worldview. I really do. Starting with 2002’s Let Go, the band became preoccupied with embracing life in their lyrics, a trend that would carry over into albums like The Weight Is A Gift and Lucky, both of which have titles that mean exactly what you think they do. Never mind that the group introduced themselves to the world with a song whose sarcastic jab at teenage superficiality threatened to make them into a one-hit wonder — Nada Surf prevailed as reliable indie workmen, and they did it without ever turning to irony. Un-ironic does’t necessarily mean gooey or cloying either. Their viewpoint has also stood out for being measured in its enthusiasm. Tracks like “Concrete Bed”, “Beautiful Beat”, and “When I Was Young” aren’t about being happy; they’re about figuring out how to be happy. There’s still a struggle, and struggle always makes a song more compelling.
Nada Surf’s eighth studio album, You Know Who You Are, explores similar territory. That’s not necessarily a problem in itself — frontman Matthew Caws has been singing the same “Life is hard, but love it anyway” mantra for at least four records at this point — but unlike its predecessors, there’s not enough musical variation in place to keep things interesting. Where most of The Weight Is A Gift had a welcome moodiness that undercut the sunny outlook and “When I Was Young” shifted from ballad to fist-pumper halfway through, everything on You Know Who You Are stays at the same MOR clip. The most captivating presence is the addition of lead guitarist Doug Gillard. Graduating from guest/touring musician to a full-time member of the band, he brightens the haunted breakup of “Believe You’re Mine” with the same tasteful jangle he’s lent to Death of Samantha and Guided By Voices.
But outside of Gillard, the sonic tone largely stays the same, as Caws delivers everything through his restrained — albeit pleasant — tenor, with few changes in dynamic. Opener “Cold To See Clear” and “Rushing” have almost the exact same chorus. (Seriously, listen to the rhythm of the lines “What can I do” and “Rushing at me” back to back.). Meanwhile, “Gold Sounds” is the opposite of the Pavement song of (almost) the same name, stubbornly hookless in its repetitive strumming.
That leaves any sense of intrigue on the shoulders of the lyrics, and there are a couple of tracks that get refreshingly specific. In addition to standing out for its power pop sprint, “New Bird” functions as a bittersweet short story about a young man loving his parents, even as they reject him for his religious beliefs. “Friend Hospital”, if maybe a little obvious, is at least endearing in its description of a platonic, shoulder-to-cry-on relationship, and “Animal” actually gets at some gritty narrative detail, with Caws remembering how he used to get high and furiously clean the house in a bout of existential dread.
For the most part, though, he isn’t saying anything he hasn’t said before. “Out of the Dark” almost finds a satisfied middle ground between the bleaker aspects of atheism and the more unrealistic aspects of spiritualism. But it can’t help but lean on groan-worthy platitudes and their inverses: “Nothing happens for a reason,” “There’s a reason to get out of bed,” and so forth. Closer “Victory’s Yours” also stays mundane in its first-person pep talk: “A little bit of life means everything to a half-believer like me.”
Another record that came out this week, You’re Doomed. Be Nice. by Rob Crow’s Gloomy Place, is similarly transfixed by a cautious, somewhat vague optimism. But that album has a loaded context surrounding it, and even if it didn’t, the more upward-looking content is a departure from what we’ve come to expect from Crow. You Know Who You Are, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of thing we’ve come to expect from Nada Surf. Unfortunately, sometimes being reliable just isn’t enough.
Essential Tracks: “Believe You’re Mine”, “New Bird”, and “Animal”