Once upon a time — many years ago — modern rock lost its heart*. This was long before Bon Iver's plaintive falsetto, the emotive bombast of Arcade Fire, or Mumford & Sons' rollicking histrionics. It was the mid-90s, when Pavement and Yo La Tengo ruled college radio airwaves and kids began to scour the thrift stories for ironic, too-small t-shirts (before they could waltz into Abercrombie & Fitch and just buy pre-fabricated irony). Back then, a disaffected affect was all the rage, but if you were looking for heart in modern rock (and I don't mean the Wilson sisters), you had to look hard. Emotive music belonged to DC punk (and even that seemed something of a misnomer — more fury than fervor). On the opposite end of the spectrum, Matthew Sweet's jangly valentines might've felt good (and still do), but even they were shot through with a sliver of romantic snark. In music, the glass was half-empty.
From the midst of all this postmodern ennui emerged Nada Surf. While their breakout hit, 1996's "Popular", immediately pegged them as part of that disaffected milieu — a weaker Weezer, even — the hit was in no way indicative of what was to come. And thank goodness, because what Nada Surf brought back to music, like a kiss from a sweet prince, was its heart. Before heart was popular. Nada Surf will never rise to the level of Arcade Fire's sonic swell. They're miles away from the sweetly erudite lyricism of, say, The Decemberists. This is a band that makes straightforward pop songs with simple, at times simplistic, lyrical turns. But their wide-eyed earnestness paved the way for a new kind of emo — not the roiling punk of Fugazi, nor the snotty taunting of emo's commercial-radio offspring — but the real deal.
When I think of Nada Surf, I can't help but think of the word "earnest." not only in terms of their heartfelt lyrics, but their striving. This is a band that will always try. If this band were a student, they'd be that moderately-bright kid who consistently delivers B-grade essays, but just isn't cut out for AP. But there's so much willingness there — you want them to win. Nada Surf are the Rudy of rock'n'roll.
The band's latest and seventh release, The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy, is another B+ record from a perpetually A-For-Effort band. It's the band's first release of all-original material since the lovely Lucky (2008). The album starts off on a terrific note (and I always award bands extra credit for instinctively knowing what makes a good opener): "Clear Eye, Clouded Mind" is a rocker — pairing Matthew Caws' wistful voice and lyrics with locomotive guitar and drums. It's an earworm — lodging the album's title (which features in the song) into your brain for days. "Jules and Jim" combine the band's sugar-sweetness with a tinge of late 80s R.E.M. jangle that's so downright comforting, you easily forgive the familiarity of Caws' lyrics. The tender "Let the Fighting Do the Fighting" and the boppy "Waiting for Something" are classic, pleasing Nada Surf. And the stunner "When I Was Young" finds Caws steeped in nostalgia amidst a sound that manages to evoke both the indie pop of the 90s and 70's-era Top 40. It's impossible not to feel the emotional tug of that song.
There are weak tracks here too. "The Moon is Calling," with its veiled eco-warning is downright meh — the dystopian spike of Granddaddy watered down with too much fruit punch. "Teenage Dreams" ventures into such cliched territory, lyrically, and such overwrought sentimentality, that it elicits disbelief. (Really, "moved to a tear by a subway break-dancer?" Really?)
Nada Surf are masters at writing solid pop songs, but their strength becomes a weakness when you're faced with the homogeny of their oeuvre. This album is no different. The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy is exactly what you'd expect from a Nada Surf album — equal parts strength and limitation. Some "ah!" moments with just a couple of "please, for the love of God, no." Were we still living in the era of greatest hits albums, perhaps Nada Surf could make a killer collection. But album to album, they always fall just short of greatness.
In all honesty, I can't even conceive of an A+ album from this band. What would it sound like for Nada Surf to push the envelope? To break out of old, familiar patterns? What is Nada Surf's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? Do we even want that to happen, or is it preferable for Nada Surf to just skip along, the perpetual torch-bearers of pensive pop? I vacillate between wanting more from the band and relying on their cozy dependability, like a solid, predictable boyfriend. There's still enough cynicism in the world for everybody — sometimes I just need Nada Surf's gentle optimism.
* This is solely the opinion of a woman generally prone to hyperbole.