Music Reviews
You Know Who You Are

Nada Surf You Know Who You Are

(Barsuk) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

Not too many bands have been as continually written off as Nada Surf. It's understandable to assume as much, as the longstanding band have pushed through album after album without much fanfare or recognition except for the tireless support of their fervent fanbase. For a moment in the early aughts it seemed as if they were unstoppable: tender love ballads like Always Love and Inside of Love captivated the Josh Shwartz-curated The OC Generation in a huge way, a time when you'd except semi-cool mope alt-rock bands to make regular appearances on cable teen dramas.

Sure, Nada Surf weren't the exception in how they can expertly write an emotional hook that can turn any thirty-something weepy and nostalgic quicker than brewed instant oatmeal, and yet despite writing some of their strongest songs during this period they've somehow been kept classed by many as some passé, foregone memory; locked and buried in a dusty time capsule where their contemporaries Rogue Wave and Youth Group still remain, sadly doomed to suffer a lesser fate. Despite writing stronger songs than tissue-prone Death Cab for Cutie, the Chris Walla-iffication of their post Let Go period didn't do then any favors (Walla himself stuck his icky, mushy fingerprints, both creatively and behind the studio console, all over their 2005 release The Weight is a Gift). Trying to outpace Death Cab always seemed like a tall order, at least commercially, but Nada Surf are archetypal late bloomers that have rightfully earned their yearbook title of “Most Spirited” instead of "Most Likely to Succeed".

Nada Surf are exemplary at taking one back to a time and a place, the type to enhance those everyday moments with tuneful minor-key melodies that can be compared to that of spotting a buttermilk sky during a violet-hued sundown. The downy trifecta of Let Go/Weight is a Gift/Lucky sounded like an unofficial trilogy to the life of a growing adult who’s in the midst of learning that the world is an everyday shuffle of clear and dark skies. And yet their songs never sound complicated, always wide-eyed and expectant, as if the only way to get through it all is find comfort while in an unchanging state. No band is infallible, however, so when they took a more forceful, mid-tempo throb on their last effort, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy, it felt like they were coasting both musically and lyrically; and to think that, in theory, the album’s nucleus of withering youth should’ve offered a bevy of substantial contemplation when instead it settled on Hallmark card philosophizing. 

The Stars was good, but good in the way that standard power pop is, though thinking of Nada Surf as anything other than that would be entirely missing the point. There’s no reason to expect they’d make some radical shift into laser-flailing electro pop, but it’d be simply unnatural if they’d fully give up on trying to light up the fretboard with twinkling, gorgeous guitar hooks. A luminous chord strum opens in Cold to See Clear, an immediate reminder of frontman Matthew Caws’s over-reliance to wistful chord progressions akin to Teenage Fanclub’s effortlessly agreeable mid-nineties period. And yes, most Nada Surf songs have a familiar ring to them - commensurate to how Norman Blake could easily write a song in his sleep during the days of Grand Prix - but they’re also a perfect blend of exuberance and craft.

But minding that driving sound that’s coated in blithe sheen, You Know Who You Are does present a series of moral observations that illustrate their inner capabilities for unbiased compassion. Caws sure does perform with an infectious gaiety, and though sometimes it borders on cloying he doesn’t suppress the reality that concerns the character in question. Instead of just empty platitudes, of which there certainly are plenty, Caws does like to assume the role of life coach - in the snappy rush of New Bird, a non-believer hopes to receive, at the very least, a semblance of understanding from his parents’ fundamentalist adherence to religion, while in the vaguely country-tinged Animal he channels an older version of himself who’s trying to give some advice for the poor decisions that he made when he was younger. They’re not exactly diaristic accounts teeming with a complexity akin to a Dylan song, of course, but they’re compelling enough to translate well with audiences who will passionately sing along to every single word. 

It’s a given that Nada Surf are fully comfortable in their melancholic articulation, though they do hold some new tricks in their pockets. The beginning portion of the album is strikingly reminiscent to the arpeggiated jangle of Lucky, though the latter portion does flesh out the more basic structures of The Stars: the sweetly unadorned title track recalls the molten pop of Sugar, while Victory’s Yours smartly takes more harmonic cues from Big Star then succumbing to the cleaner, formulaic glossiness of Buffalo Tom at their worst (which they’ve emulated in the past). But Friend Hospital truly exemplifies the band they always wanted to become after their swift identity change from faux-angst alternative rockers to jangly romantics: obey to a slick mid tempo beat alongside a uniform and sturdy backbone, with a side order of lugubrious sadness. Some things just never change.

Having been fully active for 24 years, the New York stalwarts are the quintessential example of head held-up-high careerists, chugging along with nary a complaint even if absolute fame has always eluded them (with hardly a lineup change throughout a spotless, drama-free run, to boot). There’s reason to believe that the kind of soppy, mellow pop they write just doesn’t have a place in our current times, that it reeks of starry-eyed nostalgia. But as every generation has a Seth and Summer romance for younger audiences to scrutinize and fawn over with episodic foresight, there will always be a platform for heart-on-sleeve songs to track the high and lows of a teen soap opera. Seeing as You Know Who You Are is tailor-made for prime time, I’m sure that’s a sentiment Matthew Caws would approve of.