Touching the Void
Nada Surf start off The Weight Is a Gift making grand declarations, vocals pushed to the front, that are heavy on the desire to pass on learned wisdom. They color the rest of the album if you let them and obscure the catchiness of a lot of the songs. If you think too hard about it, multiple, multiple listens will be required to appreciate how memorable the album’s best songs are and to have them take hold. Overall the effect is surprisingly subtle, even if upfront little else about the album is.
2002’s Let Go was a big step forward in Nada Surf’s climb to make-up for the sins of their novelty hit past. It was propped up by the wonderful “Blizzard of ‘77”, a song good enough to make you want to believe in the whole album even when songs as clunky as “Blonde on Blonde” made you wonder how much songwriting gas they really had. Their deal with Barsuk has given them cred in some circles and exposure to a younger audience all over again, while older fans that remember them from the band’s first go-round in the spotlight want to believe it’s possible that an MTV Buzz Bin band from their teens can redeem itself and stay relevant into adulthood. The Weight Is a Gift is a slim, focused effort that moves forward by cutting back on some of the musical bombast but fails to produce a song as compelling as the best on Let Go.
You know these are pop songs because they beat you over the head with their desire to catch your ears. The hooks aren’t good enough to stand-alone and aren’t as “perfect” (Barsuk’s words) as they’d like to think they are. Matthew Caws is good enough to turn a slight song like “Your Legs Grow” into something worth paying attention to, though, even if he can’t keep some of the album’s lyrical stabs (“azalea air”, “is it kind of Skywalker or is it kind of stupid”, “you’re left with someone who can’t get their shit together”, “I want your lazy science”) from breaking his flow. Other songs, like “What Is Your Secret?” start off being obscure but manage to become poignant (“Thank god life is so long and this city so big”). He knows how to write to his strengths and can wail convincingly enough without pleading. When everything comes together, the band manages moments (the harmonies on “Do It Again” and “What Is Your Secret”, the out-of-nowhere third section of “Always Love”) that genuinely bend your knees.
Still, even though your head knows what these songs are supposed to be, your heart doesn’t always confirm it. The longing, the desperation, the romanticism, rest too close to the top and, if it can only be in one place, that is the one place it shouldn’t be in great pop music. The songs say a lot while only scratching the surface of the depths they’re looking into.
I like the survivalist bend of the lyrics, even if the best reminder that they come up with for why it’s good to be alive is “a 25-cent game” (pinball would have been acceptable substitute). At their best they imbue Sucessisms with some heft (“To find someone you love/ You have to call your own bluff”). Too often, though, they miss their mark, and dorm room musings like “All is love/ Hate will get you every time/ All is love/ Don’t wait until the finish line” (“All is Love”) or, “Why do simple things take so many years” (“Armies Walk”) are almost un-redeemable. You’re left with some memorable moments, which should be enough, but the band seems to reach for so much more that you almost think they’d be disappointed if all that you did with their album was walk away humming a few melodies. It’s a shame, because isn’t that what’s life is all about?
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