Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Wayback Machine: Nada Surf 's Let Go

Today we're introducing a new feature here at On Warmer Music called The Wayback Machine where we take a look back at some part of musical history that bears re-examination. Our first entry concerns New York band Nada Surf's 2002 album, Let Go. Little-heralded at the time, the album reivented the Nada Surf brand, spurring their success throughout the 00's. With a classic rock n' roll creation story and some of the most pointed examinations of big-city life and loneliness since the Dismemberment Plan's Emergency & I, Let Go quietly became one of the best albums of the last decade, even if it missed most of the decade-end lists.

After releasing their buzz-bin debut High/Low (featuring the novelty-hit-that-shall-not-be-named) at the tail end of the "alternative" movement, Nada Surf's follow-up album, The Proximity Effect was released in 1998 to critical and popular acclaim in Europe. Elektra saw no viable US single and asked the band to tinker with the album, releasing a cover of "Why Are You So Mean To Me?" as the lead single. The band eventually said, "enough" and bought back the rights to the album, releasing it to mixed reviews in the States in 2000.

Coming off this setback, Nada Surf toured and licked its wounds, building a cult fan base across the world. With a wad of crumpled bills from merch sales to pay for recording time and production, the band enetered the studio in 2001 to begin the recording of Let Go, which was released in late 2002 in Europe and early 2003 in the US.

Matthew Caws
Nada Surf had developed a trademark sound over the years with their crunchy guitars and burbling bass which they retained and expanded upon for Let Go. The album featured more double-tracked Beach Boys-style vocals and acoustic guitar than they'd used before to match the introspective lyrical tone of the material.

Let Go opens with "Blizzard of '77" an acoustic masterpiece using airy vocals and overlain acoustic guitars to create an ethereal sonic landscape. Over this, Matthew Caws takes the song from the story of a drug trip during a snowstorm into a meditation on his own head space. "I know have got a negative edge / that's why I sharpen all the others a lot" he sings before turning the poetic simile, "it's like flowers or ladybugs / pretty weeds or red beetles 'with dots?"

The second song is perhaps the album's focal point, summing up the band's philosophy and influences in 4:09. "Happy Kid" starts with an energetic electric/acoustic guitar riff before Ira Elliot and Daniel Lorca's drums and base kick the song fully into gear. Caws uses what should be the tired roller-coaster-as-life metaphor to describe his vertiginous daily existence. The word choice here is impeccable, as Caws describes a lonely evening hitting the clubs. "Out at night to do the strand / the little candles make the bottles glow / got ink all over my right hand / getting crushes with no chance to grow". He also slips in some sly Pixies references about being stuck with the heart of "a sad punk" and the oceans coming to his car, an appreciated, unobtrusive wink to fellow obsessives.

They follow this one-two punch with a trio of dreamy songs - then new territory for Nada Surf. "Inside Of Love" is a gorgeous late-night confession of a man falling asleep while "watching terrible TV that kills all thought" and dreaming of true love. "Fruit Fly" follows with an hand-tapped intro over which Caws recounts how old fruit in his apartment attracted a swarm of flies which he can't disperse. The full band slams into the song behind him as he turns introspective again, comparing the flies' unpredictable patterns with his own life and wonders when he or they will be able to land again. This quickly became a live favorite. On "Blonde On Blonde" the band uses watery guitar and a classic Dylan album to channel a rainy afternoon, to sublime effect.

"Hi-Speed Soul" follows with a heavy, distorted electric guitar riff before the rhythm section once again thunders in for the album's most rousing moment. Caws takes the experience of hearing chirpy soul songs at a club to parallel the unblinking feeling of life in the city and the loss of his own youth. "Killian's Red" could be the later part of the evening described in the previous song, as Caws sings about waiting in a bar for his lover. "I go on vacation tonight / under a sun of neon lights / and I almost love this town / when I'm by your side" he proclaims over a menacing slow build by the band. Once again Nada Surf captures that uniquely dispiriting feeling of being utterly alone in a crowded bar.

The album then winds down with another pair of rave-ups and one of spacey ballads. "The Way You Wear Your Head" references Cheap Trick's "I Want You To Want Me" and somehow manages to pull off a similar insouciant cheekiness (albeit with a slightly less catchy hook) while "Treading Water" uses mixed tempos and vague but universal lyrics ("treading water / treading white wine / seeing borders / seeing straight lines / ... always pushing / always late") to give the listener the feeling of being in Caws' harried everyday life. Meanwhile, "Neither Heaven Nor Space" is a pleasant enough interlude that has all the stickiness and insubstantial effects of eating a handful of candy and "Si La Pour Ça" functions well as a francophone mood piece from a band fond of delving into the language of love.

"Paper Boats" closes out the album and it is just the type of epic, thematically unifying song that all great album-enders should be. It starts with a slow acoustic riff as Caws sings, "sit on train, reading a book / same damn planet every time I look / try to relax, slow my heartbeat / only works when I'm dead asleep". Over a simple, down-tempo bed he looks at his life of "thinking and drinking all over the town" while "gearing up for another meltdown" and years for some kind of release. Specifically, he wants to find solace with his unnamed love interest to whom he sings, but can't bridge the gap between his own worries and her. The paper boats here are trains, passing each other unseen just like him and his love. The song highlights the same pain at our inability to fully escape our own mind and truly connect with another person that David Foster Wallace has described so well.

As the music drifts away, we're left alone on the train platform, still sad but also uplifted because we've just heard our reality put into music and pumped through our headphones, leaving us just a little less alone.

Happy Kid - Nada Surf
High-Speed Soul - Nada Surf
Paper Boats - Nada Surf
Buy the album.

Bonus Track:
Blizzard Of '77 - Girls In Hawaii
A couple of Belgian kids do a beautiful cover of the opener. I told you they were big in Europe.

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