Intentionally or not, the cover image on You Know Who You Are, the latest album by veteran pop group Nada Surf, forms a pentagon, the shape intimately familiar to baseball fans the world over as signifying home plate. To expand that metaphor a bit, the correlation is a perfect representation for the music this New York-based band releases on the regular. Even as the lyrics express romantic distress and longing, there’s a warm familiarity and comfort to the quartet’s chiming guitars, robust rhythm section and leader Matthew Caws’ charmingly baleful croon. For music fans of a certain age, it brings back memories of the halcyon days of indie rock; a reminder of when it seemed perfectly natural to stay up until 1 a.m. to catch every last crunchy guitar chord of the headliner and then be at work bright and early the next morning.
For younger fans, Nada Surf offers up plenty of fodder to feed their maudlin thoughts about the one that they want or the one that got away. No matter that the band is nearing its 25th birthday and Caws is closing in on 50, the pain of heartbreak is still resonating within them. That’s what makes the gorgeous longing of “Believe You’re Mine,” with its combination of simple truths (“One day I’ll love somebody else/One day, I’ll take care of myself”) and poetic expressions (“They say it will let go if I give it time/but this oven is burning coal/I got a big supply”), or the pinpoint sentiment—”I need you like/a string needs a kite to get to the sky”—sewn into the midtempo country rock of “Animal” so damn affecting. These lyrics feel like the musings that all sensitive souls have buried within. It just took a master tunesmith like Caws to root them out and bring them into the light.
While the band has evidenced a welcome consistency to their work over the years, their last album, 2012’s The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy, and this new LP have benefited from the addition of guitarist Doug Gillard. The veteran player adds so much more punch and beauty to Nada Surf, as well as a welcome touch of the arch-psychedelia and skittish blues that distinguished his work in Cobra Verde and Guided By Voices. Gillard may be exercising restraint throughout so as to better fit in with the understated mood of these songs but he leaps out in small moments like the snaky lead part in “Animal” and the low, surf-rock rumble he administers to “Gold Sounds.”
Listening to You Know Who You Are, or really any of Nada Surf’s albums from the past two decades, there’s the sense that Caws could knock out a collection of tunes with one hand tied behind his back. The music feels so effortless in that way. Yet, this new LP is only the eighth in the group’s history. That belies as precision and care that Caws and co. must use during their writing and recording sessions. The proof is in a finished product where nothing feels out of place or approached half-heartedly. It’s as perfect a pop album as you’re going to get this year. Savor every last bit of it.