Nada Surf‘s fifth album kicks off with “See These Bones,” a mini-epic that finds singer/guitarist Matthew Caws resigned to mortality (“You’ll be dust”) as morose verses build to a sweeping chorus (not to mention a killer pun: “Look alive! See these bones”).
The track serves a quick reminder that few acts mine misery better than the New York trio, and an instant indicator of where the band is headed for the duration of Lucky (Barsuk Records), perhaps the moodiest and broodiest release yet by Caws, bassist Daniel Lorca and drummer Ira Elliot.
As for whether it also rates among the band’s best, that depends on the listener’s threshold for doom and gloom.
There is bleak sentiment everywhere, even where one might least expect it. On the propulsive “Beautiful Beat,” Caws’ angelic refrain can’t mask the disquietude seeping from gut-wrenching lines such as “Sometimes all I want is another drink or another pill.” Over the enchanting, laid-back tempo of “Are You Lightning?”, Caws is at his most wounded as he asks, “The sweet things, when do they come?” It’s a question that need not be posed as his slightly hushed voice and exasperated tone make it clear he fears the answer is not anytime soon.
While lyrically catatonic, Nada Surf does seem to take great pains to vary its musical approach, and the biggest departure for them on this disc is “The Fox,” a nearly six-minute complexity that calls to mind Peter Gabriel‘s prog-rock flirtations. This is a song not centered on longing or loathing, but the just as unsettling topic of government deception. “We’re in a different war with ourselves,” Caws sings. “So many things that can’t be true.”
Elsewhere, “Ice on the Wing” is a taut rocker with stream-of-consciousness lyrics that don’t add up to much, unless you’re aware the song is inspired by Caws’ fighter-pilot grandfather. And Caws’ guitar is in full Big Star-esque chime for “Whose Authority,” which, while vaguely defiant, sounds oh-so uplifting in the context of this disc.
Such moments are few on Lucky. For all of Nada Surf’s precision and adventurousness, this is music geared toward those who like to get down by getting down.
— By George Henn