Review Summary: Age is just a number.
It’s a bit counterintuitive, but early 40-somethings Nada Surf seem to be growing less and less jaded and cynical as the years wind by. They were big once, properly alternative-rock-radio big with 1996’s snarky hit “Popular,” and the only place it got them was the one-hit wonder section in your local FYE’s bargain bin. That is so often the problem with novelty hits, which the spoken-word, eminently contemptuous “Popular” obviously was, and Nada Surf have since made a career out of being the most earnest band in indie. In the hands of another group a painfully wide-eyed title like The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy
would likely be the setup to a contradictory punch line – under the direction of the same band who named a song “Always Love” without a hint of artifice, it’s just another example of the kind of unfeigned sincerity these aging optimists do so well.
For most of The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy
, Nada Surf are a blur of high-energy power chords and a hard-charging rhythm section in bassist Daniel Lorca and drummer Ira Elliot that plays in a remarkable lockstep with each other. Aside from first single “When I Was Young,” which slows things down to focus on predictably cringe-inducing lyrical nostalgia, everything is tight and focused, polished clean and dashed with a healthy bit of punk-influenced crunch courtesy of producer Chris Shaw. Vocalist Matthew Caws still has that flawless tenor that gives his vocals an eternally youthful vigor, and Shaw’s work in focusing the mix on his inimitable voice while maintaining a strong focus on the power of Caws’ guitar gives The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy
a pleasantly gutsy live feel. It’s the right call for an album that is filled to the brim with enthusiastic statements like “it’s never too late for teenage dreams” and other assorted feel-good credos. Caws may be approaching middle age, but he has rarely sounded as conflicted and/or hopelessly romantic as he does here, one minute lamenting the expectations of youth on “When I Was Young” and the next sounding utterly pleased at the results on “Teenage Dreams” – “sometimes I ask the wrong questions, but I get the right answers.”
It’s par for the course for Caws, who has made a career out of that ageless yelp and a decision to not worry too much about what he’s saying, instead focusing on how he says it. Caws’ energy is infectious – it’s impossible not to sing along with the sweet clichés he leaves hovering over raucous tunes like “Clear Eye Clouded Mind” or “No Snow on the Mountain.” Even when he’s wallowing in sap, you still get the feeling that he honestly just wants to let you know how he’s feeling, as directly and artlessly as possible. For all of “When I Was Young’s” oppressive sentimentality and cloying acoustic vibe, when Caws sings, “when I was young, I didn’t know if I was better off asleep or up / now I’ve grown up, I wonder what was that world I was dreaming of,” his frankness is enough to tug at the heartstrings of even the most jaded 9-to-5ers. Caws’ shock at the end of the album that he “can’t believe the future’s happening to me” is another likely touchstone for Nada Surf fans, particularly those who have stuck with the band for the long haul and are likely approaching that age where “Popular” is as anachronistic to them as the rest of those cloudy teenage years. Luckily for them, Nada Surf is proof that growing old doesn’t have to be full of regrets and missed opportunities – if their career arc proves anything, it’s that it’s never too late to reinvent yourself. They have kept going largely on an indefatigable attitude and a firm grasp of the finer points of the three-minute pop song, and few bands can regularly write the kind of hooks that The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy
builds itself around. Improbable but true; as these ten mostly filler-free tracks prove, Nada Surf only look to be growing more confident in their old age.