Nada Surf, New York’s indie-rock pearls, released their newest album, Lucky, earlier this month on Barsuk Records. A testament to endurance and hope, Lucky is a conversation with a close friend when catching up feels the best.
Twelve years after the song “Popular” briefly gave them MTV popularity, the veteran trio is reaching a smaller, grassroots audience but has broadened its artistic canvas considerably. Thematically, Lucky is insightful and revealing in its confrontations of love, reverence for life, and acknowledgment of our weaknesses.
These are multilayered songs about proudly weathering difficult times. Approaching emotions from some clandestine angles, Lucky forces the listener to contend with issues that reside in each of our days, connecting emotionally if only to verify that we are not alone.
“All of my favorite moments in my teen years were discovering records and putting my head close to the speakers,” says Matthew Caws, the band’s singer and main songwriter. The ability to lose himself in melodies allowed him to construct realities outside of his own. “`I wanted` to enter that world because it seemed so perfect,” he says. “I still look for it.”
Many musicians, including Caws, struggle to cope with the gap between the rapturous power of music and the often-pedestrian nature of everyday life.
“I wonder `if not being` conscious of the fact that one can feel rapturous would be a blessing, because when … you’ve had a taste of it, I wonder if it then colors normal moments in a less exciting way,” he says delicately.
As a child, holidays in North Carolina to visit his grandmother landed Caws in church on Sundays, exposing him to traditional hymns, but more importantly, the unity of group performance. “I loved the singing. I loved that feeling of everybody doing it at once.”
Caws says that he’s been bringing unfinished song fragments to his band lately “because I’ve had a pretty fractured life the last few years. I’ve been really productive, except that I’ve been writing tiny songs.”
The awareness of a deeper understanding of life and relationships reveals itself in colorful ways on Lucky. The sonic relationships with verse are important, and although the album leans slightly more to the light side, upbeat melodies smoothly deliver candid lyrics. Songs converge upon the theme of surviving the buildup of uglier times.
“See These Bones” is a spacious introduction to the album and hits the listener hard, daring us to acknowledge our impermanence. Caws hit upon the song’s premise on a trip to the Capuchin Church of the Immaculate Conception in Via Veneto, Rome, where a multi-chambered crypt houses unbelievable installations that were created by monks from the bones of 4,000 of their predecessors.
“I was so struck by this place. It was death embodied in a different way,” Caws explains. “It was like being put into a good mood at gunpoint.”
At various points, the record’s honesty can be staggering. “What you are now/we once were” illustrates the grim inevitability of “See These Bones,” but also forces listeners to see that this existence is all we have, and that we should revel in the present. “How criminal it is not to be celebrating this whole time,” Caws says.
There are healing dimensions to the songs that nudged him to widen the aperture through which he viewed life. “It seems that in real life, the search for perfection is such a mistake,” he says. “It’s a real liability.”
The love songs on the record weave through hope, jealousy, and loss, covering the hybrid emotions in between. Although, according to Caws, it “started out as a love song to a beat” and shifted its focus, “Beautiful Beat” has a full, pretty, deliberate melody that balances it lyrically. “When words are kind of sad-sack, or verging on the pathetic, I think it helps if it’s balanced out with some kind of strength,” Caws says.
“From Now On” starts off strong, admitting emotions we all feel but are ashamed of, and needles the listener: “I don’t want to be in this song/sung while the summer rots/and the hot’s hot/where is the wind?” Caws treads into vulnerable waters, but leans on the melody for strength. “The melody and the inertia `of the song` is sort of falling over itself. It’s got a lot of energy, and I guess that’s what makes it feel OK for me to be that bare about things,” he says.
The band’s collaboration with Lianne Smith on “The Film Did Not Go ’Round,” the album’s closing tune, makes for a solemn end. Reminding us to enjoy things while we’ve got them, regardless of how difficult it can be to remember, the spooky filament of the duet seals the album nicely. Taking some sharp turns throughout the album, much like we do in our thoughts over the course of a day, Nada Surf emerges understanding, refreshed, and calm. •