Nada Surf

The Weight is a Gift

(Barsuk; 2005)

By David Greenwald | 21 September 2005

It’s not often that a one-hit wonder gets the chance to turn its career around. '90s pop-rockers like Fastball and Semisonic keep releasing album after album into the void, while blissfully unaware former fans hear “Closing Time” on the radio and think, “Hey! I used to love this band! What were they called again?”

As the group behind high school irony anthem “Popular,” Nada Surf used to be one of these bands. Until Let Go: the 2003 album, released on Death Cab For Cutie’s Barsuk, was thoughtful and sad but unafraid to rock out a few times. It arrived just in time to make its way onto Seth Cohen’s stereo, and with a commissioned cover of “If You Leave” for The O.C. soundtrack, here comes Nada Surf making a triumphant return. Sort of.

Though still immediately affecting, The Weight Is A Gift fails to be as nuanced or emotive as its predecessor. The power chords of “Imaginary Friends” and “Armies Walk” feel phoned in, missing the wit and spark of songs like “Happy Kid.” A member of The Main Drag – no slouch when it comes to being influenced by Nada Surf – recently referred to the album as sounding “like Let Go b-sides,” and while that’s underrating it, he wasn’t too far off. These songs are straightforward and to the point, leaving the band dependent on the style they helped popularize rather than exploratory atmospherics.

Nada Surf is ready to pick up the pace this time around, and it works in their favor, at least for a while. The first three tracks are as good as anything in their catalog: Like “Blizzard of ‘77” before it, “Concrete Bed” is an opener with incisive dual acoustic guitars, while “Do It Again” offers staggered harmonies and a unexpected, emphatic bridge. Concluding the triplet is the sentimental “Always Love,” which relies on comfortingly clichéd feelings and familiar electric guitars. It’s nothing new, and the song is made effective thanks to vocalist Matthew Caws’s sincerity. His melodies gracefully enter the upper register, carrying equal parts shy sweetness and minor-key fist-clenching. Caws is gifted with the ability to imbue even pedestrian lyrics with meaning, something he does capably for most of the album.

It’s in the last third where the band starts to run out of gas. After the floundering young adulthood celebrated in the upbeat “Blankest Year,” Caws sings about needing “a reminder of what I’m doing / I need a reminder, that I’m human” in the nondescript “In The Mirror.” “Armies Walk” and “Imaginary Friends” close out the album with blank power chords.

With the gentle, delicate soundscapes of Let Go mostly replaced by energetic guitar riffing, Nada Surf can only transcend the limitations of the '90s sound for so long. Enough life is breathed into the style to warrant attention (guitar pop being the forgivingly likeable genre that it is), but the band is better than this. Here’s to hoping they stick with it; any band good enough to pull itself out of obscurity twice deserves another second chance.