Nada Surf were a Brooklyn band before it seemingly became a legal requirement that you start trying to cultivate blog buzz the second you sign a lease on a Williamsburg studio with your vaguely musical friends, so maybe it’s appropriate that their seventh studio album The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy sounds like it’s fifteen years old. It sounds like the direct, fuzzy guitar pop you might hear on mid-nineties college radio sandwiched between old-school R.E.M. and the Counting Crows.
Whether this is criticism or a compliment depends on your sensibilities – ‘90s college radio was awesome, but it was ‘90s college radio, and in 2012, it’s been pretty thoroughly done: bands who successfully tap into that vibe (see: Yuck) have made hay by bringing a hearty dose of now to those old tropes. And Nada Surf – well, tracks like album opener “Clear Eye Clouded Mind” probably would have blown our mind if we’d heard them on the car radio when we were ten, but now – though Nada Surf’s songwriting is inarguably tight, their hooks super-catchy, their scuzzy riffs appropriately fun and driving – it’s all too easy to brainstorm, while listening, all the other bands who opened up the same bag of tricks more than a decade ago.
That doesn't mean The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy doesn't do a whole lot of right. Over eighteen years in the game, Nada Surf have proven that they’re solid pop songwriters, and these are truly, undeniably solid pop songs – “Clear Eye Clouded Mind,” all driving scuzz and inscrutable lyrics, could’ve been plucked right off R.E.M.’s 1984 release Reckoning (by which we mean, it’s really damn good, so much so that it likely would’ve been game-changing in 1984); “Looking Through” has a rollicking, Arcade Fire-esque guitar chug; “When I Was Young” slowly builds up before it breaks, fantastically, halfway through, into an upbeat ballad with huge drums and atmospheric guitar pyrotechnics; even the record’s latter-half acoustic slow jams (“Let the Fight Do the Fighting”) don’t let it drag, and it ends strong with a one-two punch of possibly its two best songs, “No Snow on the Mountain” and “The Future.”
It’s that last song, three minutes of perfect old-school indie pop, that bears the record’s most self-conscious statement: “I cannot believe the future’s happening to me,” frontman Matthew Caws intones, appropriately nervous and vulnerable. But the future is happening; to some extent it’s already happened; music has changed so much in eighteen years, and it’s left Caws and his band making admittedly well-crafted pop in a vein that’s no longer unique. There’s a lot to be said for how beautiful – and innovative – nostalgic music can be, but The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomydoesn’t sound nostalgic, it sounds antiquated.
NADA SURF – "When I Was Young" (MP3)