Still remembered mostly for their 1996 crossover (i.e. MTV-rotated) hit “Popular”, which landed somewhat laboured sarcastic blows at the mores of high-school romance, Nada Surf have since struggled with record label acrimony and diminishing returns. Though heavily supported by a loyal fan-base, there has been a definite sense of a career slowly on the wane. This fifth album, however, released on the indie safe haven of Barsuk records, showcases a mature and surprisingly tenacious power trio that make up for a certain lack of musical experimentation with high production values and a firm grasp of melodious hooks. With high school way behind the band, Lucky turns instead to themes of aging, mortality and decline. The message seems to be that artistic survival, rather than commercial success, is now the major objective.
There is an airbrushed, impeccably clean feel to the bulk of the record that makes it hard to place. One could easily play it and think it had been recorded in 1998 rather than 2008: no Kid A, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot bleeps, computerized beats or bursts of static are to be found here. Matthew Caws’ high plaintive vocals are so crystal clear in the mix that the appended lyric sheet is rendered all but redundant. Occasionally, this approach can come uncomfortably close to rather bland AOR, not helped by Caws’ penchant for lyrics that veer from occasionally trite to downright bonkers, and his sometimes overly earnest delivery. Largely though, the ability to craft catchy tunes keeps things afloat.
The best tracks on Lucky are the ones that stick to the formula of quiet, downbeat verses broken by a strident, defiant chorus. Opener “See These Bones”, which contains the cautionary warning that, “What you are now we were once,” is both maudlin and optimistic: “Just like we are you’ll be dust / And just like we are permanent.” The subtle use of strings lends added gravitas and makes it sound uncannily like a lost track from The Ideal Crash by dEUS. “Beautiful Beat” opts for a similar strategy, though the prominent piano leads things close to Coldplay waters. “Weightless” is the kind of track you expect to provide the accompaniment to an episode of high school angst in a glossy television show: “Grown up life is like eating speed or flying a plane / It’s too bright, it’s too bright”, Caws intones over waves of echoing guitars. There is an undeniable class to this song writing which prompts admiration rather than excitement: what Nada Surf do is not new but they do it very well.
They fare less well when they deviate from this template. “The Fox” seems to nod toward Bends-era Radiohead, building from a single vibrating chord that lasts throughout the whole song’s annoying six minutes, ultimately collapsing in a horrible mish-mash of Arabic orchestration. By the time you get to “Ice on the Wing”, which opens with “I am made of Sopwith Camel / Sherman PT-17, sixty and cloudy, I go slow / Compared to modernity I am a humming bee,” Caws’ penchant for lyrics that are seemingly pulled randomly out of a hat begins to grate a little. Clearly better at writing from concrete experience, these excursions into John Ashbery-lite merely detract from what Nada Surf do so well, namely warm, slightly nostalgic guitar pop.
It is doubtful whether Lucky will win Nada Surf any new fans, though it certainly won’t lose them any either. They have clearly found their sound, and, for the most part, are comfortable expressing it. Though largely unalike musically, the overall feelings I got from this were similar to listening to the last Teenage Fanclub record, another band well into its second decade. Both groups have probably had their “moment”, and are now reliant on loyal fans to stop them from sliding into obscurity, yet there are elements of craftsmanship, competence, and most of all, charm, in these bands that it would be sad to lose. Lucky is a solid, almost reassuring album; it’s good to still have them around.