Two years ago, a Nada Surf review would have begun by mentioning their 1996 novelty hit “Popular,” and their subsequent fall from grace (and the majors). Today, any review of a Nada Surf album has a different reference point: their brilliant 2002 release Let Go, held by Blogcritics and other reviewers to be one of the top 5 albums of 2003 after it was re-released on Barsuk. This shift in perception is both a blessing and a curse for the band. On the one hand, they spent years trying to escape the shadow of “Popular.” On the other hand, following up an album as richly melancholic, quietly epic, and idiosyncratic as Let Go is a tall order. With The Weight is a Gift, Matthew Caws, Daniel Lorca, and Ira Elliot have produced a worthy album that, while not on the same plane as the desperately yearning Let Go, has its own rewards.
If there is less desperation on this release, it is for a good reason: the band is tighter and more self-assured in its playing and songwriting than before. (They would have to be, to put in an 11 song set in under 40 minutes.) The band’s songwriting focus is more outward looking at the same time: where much of Let Go felt like internal monologues from one side of failing relationships, The Weight is a Gift paints a series of portraits of people in different stages of disassembly, from the burned out loveless loser of “Concrete Bed” to the control freak of “What Is Your Secret.” The elliptical, closely observed writing can sometimes mislead, as with the apparently happy “Oh f*ck it/I’m going to have a party” that starts “The Blankest Year,” before it becomes a a darker set of observations set jarringly against bouncy pop rhythms: “i”d like to return this spell/it’s not my size/and your lies are so much bigger/than my lies.” Other interviews with band members have suggested that the songs are inspired by Matthew Caws’ unspecified difficult experiences over the past year, but the lyrics escape the narrow focus of the personal to suggest universal pains and fears.
The standout cut for me at this stage is probably “Your Legs Grow,” which seemed forlornly out of place on last year’s polemic Future Soundtrack for America but which gains immeasurably by its surroundings on this album. Freed of trying to read political meanings into the lyrics, it reads as a lifeline thrown out to a troubled friend.
On most of the songs, the lyrics stand in contrast to the music: incredibly compact pop songs that veer from rocking to quiet ballads while burrowing a groove into your ears. This is some seriously catchy songwriting, with smart performances aided and abetted by the skilled production of Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla at his Hall of Justice studio in Seattle (as well as some time in über-multitracker John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone studios in San Francisco). There’s a depth to these recordings that repays deeper listening, both on the purely sonic level and lyrically.
If there is a flaw to the record, it is its insistence on keeping its true feelings difficult to find. Unlike Let Go, The Weight is a Gift doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve, and where it gets guarded, it gets difficult to approach. But at the core it is a worthy successor, musically and emotionally, to an excellent album, and I don’t think I could personally ask for more.
This review was also published at BlogCritics.