It’s been a long career for Nada Surf, who have pretty much done it all at this point. One hit wonder during the ‘90s alternative rock boom? Check. Critically adored comeback album in the 00’s? Check. Covers album? Check. Added a second guitarist to what was formerly a trio? Check.
You Know Who You Are arrives a full 20 years after “Popular”, the band’s aforementioned one-hit wonder moment. And it’s an accurate title. It’s another 10 tracks of sweet and catchy guitar pop that is eminently listenable. A few tracks stand out. A few just lay there. But, you know, mostly it’s pretty good. The band doesn’t have to try very hard to churn out material like this, because they’ve been doing it for so long. Does that mean Nada Surf isn’t trying very hard? Not necessarily, but man, we’re a long way out from Let Go (the critically adored comeback album) and the middle-aged version of Nada Surf doesn’t seem to have the same passion as their younger selves.
The title track comes late on the album, a short rocker with some real punch in the guitars and drums, and even in Matthew Caws’ vocals, where he practically spits the words in isolated moments. That punch is sweetened by some great backing vocals in the chorus and it makes “You Know Who You Are” a real treat. The record’s other two rockers also come off quite positively. “New Bird” isn’t particularly interesting musically, but its fast tempo provides a different sort of backdrop to Caws’ lyrics. He tells a story of falling out of touch with religion and his parents because of it; the fact that the song is mostly just a story without a refrain gives it slightly more heft. “Cold to See Clear” opens the album with a quick, quiet intro before Ira Elliot’s driving drums come in. The song rides on that driving beat and Caws’ vocals, stopping only for another quiet moment early on before cranking right through to the end. The moment when Caws sings “A little cold to see clear” feels like the song’s refrain, but it only comes around that one time.
The bittersweet, mid-tempo style that’s been one of the band’s hallmarks also shows up. “Believe You’re Mine” has a very nice, downbeat guitar riff but the kind of soaring chorus doesn’t really take off. “Friend Hospital” benefits from its weird title, because the song isn’t particularly memorable musically. Lyrically, Caws’ sings from the perspective of a man trying futilely to convince himself that it’s better to be in the friend zone with the girl he likes than to have to deal with all the messy emotions of getting his heart broken. Standard stuff, but that refrain that goes “Friend hospital / Wild sadness / New weakness” is striking. Too bad it doesn’t have a better song around it.
The rest of You Know Who You Are is filled out with brighter material, at least musically. “Out of the Dark” adds a horn section, which is nice, although it feels more like an afterthought than a necessity. “Animal” has an easygoing, country-rock feel, especially with Gillard’s twangy lead riff. Maybe the only outright negative on the album is “Gold Sounds.” It has a constant beat and guitar chug but never feels like it goes anywhere because that nonstop beat and chug flattens out the whole song over the course of a very long five minutes. At least the album closes with the very catchy “Victory’s Yours”, which employs all of the band’s best qualities to great effect. There’s a strong chorus, layered harmonies, good drum fills, and a bassline that complements without completely replicating the guitars.
Nada Surf is too good to put out a truly lackluster album, especially now that they’re going a full four years between new material. But they don’t seem to be challenging themselves very much. Or maybe those challenges are just small scale and don’t stick out amongst the more traditional songs. “Gold Sounds” could be considered a failed experiment in tone. The horns in “Out of the Dark” feel absolutely perfunctory, but it’s a different sound for the band. On the other hand, “Cold to See Clear” eschews a traditional chorus and does it very successfully. So it turns out that there are some minor differences on You Know Who You Are, but mostly this is just another album in the band’s discography. That makes it solid and shrug-worthy simultaneously.