Nada Surf have been at it since the 1990s with the same core trio of Matthew Caws (vocals and guitar), Daniel Lorca (bass, backing vocals), and Ira Elliot (drums). They play catchy power-pop and often write excellent songs. That hasn’t changed over the decades. But Never Not Together is their first album in quite a while where the band seem fully engaged with the material.
That is apparent in the lyrical content of the album, which finds Caws in a more philosophical mood than usual. The record’s middle track, “Something I Should Do”, is a sterling example of this. It opens with the distinctive “chuk chuk chuk chuk” sound of an electric guitar counting off the tempo. It then launches into a crunchy, catchy riff that’s joined after a few seconds by the rest of the band, including auxiliary member Louie Lino on a wobbly Moog-style synth. Caws sings about a lovely day in the city in late October before hitting the chorus, “Dance dance / Around the door.” Another verse about letting go and just existing follows, and then Caws unexpectedly launches into a fast-moving spoken word torrent about villages hundreds of years ago where nothing changed over a lifetime.
That may be the first time we’ve heard Caws speaking on a track since their 1990s hit “Popular” put them on the map. He sounds so different speaking versus singing that it’s almost like getting a cameo appearance from the guy from “Popular”, which tickled the nostalgic part of my brain. After going through the main melody again, Caws returns with an even longer second spoken word section to finish out the song. He talks about social media and being hooked and self-critiquing and how he’s trying to get away from excoriating himself. He winds his way around to the point at the end. “Hippies sure had a point / Empathy is good, lack of empathy is bad / And now the lines of non-facts waiting to get into a conversation are longer, and longer / And some people can’t be beat in an argument / And we have to hold onto that hippie point harder / Empathy is good, lack of empathy is bad / Holy math says we’re never not together.”
It’s an interesting song because Caws’ words tumble over each other so quickly (and it’s just a little bit buried by the music) that it takes a few listens to really get what he’s saying. But it’s clear that empathy is the key for him, and it drives many of the other songs on the album. “Live Learn & Forget” begins with a chiming minor-key guitar riff, which quickly opens up into a driving full band song where the most distinctive part is Lino’s prominent, simple piano accompaniment on the chorus. Lyrically the song finds Caws getting philosophical again. He begins by talking about how he doesn’t feel like writing about love anymore, and moves on to “So put your anger away / You’re in no danger of dying out / You don’t need to be right / It’s overrated anyhow.” Near the end, he concludes, “It’s always what you do next / There’s always another track”, and that feeds back into the chorus and title of the song, “Live and learn, forget.”
Musically, the most interesting song on Never Not Together is the multi-faceted “Mathilda”, which runs through a gamut of styles over its six minutes. It opens with a minute of Caws and acoustic guitar singing about how he was teased with the nickname “Mathilda” as a child for being slightly effeminate. It then switches to another chiming minor-key electric guitar riff, where the band sounds as if it might be underwater. Forty-five seconds later, it’s full-on rock with distorted guitars and driving drums and a soaring vocal melody. Caws ties that childhood experience back into a more global perspective of male fragility and battered self-esteem. After allowing the music to fade away around the 4:20 mark, the band changes over into a relaxed, more folky vibe that finishes out the song, concluding with “There’s a special Hell / That we build for ourselves / And it’s handed down / In homes and playgrounds.”
With these big mission statement songs carrying the load, the remainder of the album allows the band to do some really solid work that leans into their strengths. “Come Get Me” is a relaxed pop-rock track that features a beautiful melody that emphasizes Caws’ singing and some tasteful use of the Moog sound by Lino. It’s an interestingly constructed song, too, with the first three minutes being all verses and the final two being variations on the chorus. “Just Wait” is a melancholy ballad with acoustic guitars and cello and a busy vocal melody. Here Caws advises stressed people, “You’re gonna be just fine / It might take some time / But you gotta know / It’s gonna be okay / Just wait.”
The insistent “Ride in the Unknown” finishes out the album with an upbeat, high-energy feel. The driving beat and bass from Elliot and Lorca push the song along, and subtle saxophone and keys fill out the sound. Caws again has a strong melody and vocals here. And again, he’s talking about empathy, in this case being there for one another no matter the situation.
That lyrical focus on moving forward, supporting one another, and having empathy could easily have turned cloying throughout a whole album. But Caws’ singing is excellent, bringing life to a bunch of great melodies, and the band are also in fine form. They know when to turn up the volume and when to back off and when songs need some crunch and when they need more orchestration. Never Not Together is the best record Nada Surf have made in quite a while, and it’s worth giving it a listen for any lapsed fans.