4/11/2006

Nada Surf - The Weight Is A Gift.

Up until recently, I was just another one of the many people who, if they remember Nada Surf at all, remembered them only for their mid-90s novelty hit "Popular". I knew that they'd had several albums out since those days, and that a lot of kids in the more indie-rock circles I run in swore by their other music, but I'd never really bothered to check them out. However, when their most recent album came out, it seemed like the good press was more widespread than ever, and I figured it was about time to figure out whether this band really did have something more to offer than novelty.

Lo and behold, the kids who had been hyping Nada Surf to me for years were completely right. "The Weight Is A Gift" blew me away from first listen. The experience was similar to the one I had about 5 years ago, when I picked up the first two Superdrag albums used on a whim, based on a memory of their one hit from years earlier, "Sucked Out". As with Superdrag, I found that the average Nada Surf song is quite a bit better than the hit single that briefly made them famous. Also, Nada Surf's music is easily comparable to Superdrag's--melodic, yet rocking power pop, with equal emphasis on distorted guitar riffing and gorgeous vocal hooks.

One thing that's probably obvious by now to anyone who's been reading this blog for any length of time is that I'm a very emotional person, and that music is often the most powerful outlet through which I work through these emotions. This being the case, it's often true that lyrics I can connect to on an emotional level will give an album quite a boost in my estimation. This is true in a big way for "The Weight Is A Gift". Lyrically, this album hits me pretty hard, especially on its first three songs. Many of the songs' lyrics seem like pep talks from a concerned friend, and opening track "Concrete Bed" is probably the most obvious example of this. Over an acoustic-based guitar riff, frontman Matthew Caws sings to a friend whom, he notes, is "so fried". The chorus is delivered gently, but speaks the kind of truth that can be uncomfortable for people who are struggling with loneliness and depression. "To find someone you love, you've gotta be someone you love", Caws says. It's tough to hear, but it's said in a way that makes obvious his concern. Not to mention the fact that it's catchy as hell, and certainly a much better sentiment to be walking around all day humming under one's breath than the typical self-hatred of a lot of indie rock bands. "Do It Again" follows that song with a portrayal of the other side of the coin. He tells us, "I bought a stack of books, I didn't read a thing. It's like I'm sitting here waiting for birds to sing." In other words, just because he feels comfortable enough to provide a pep talk to friends, that doesn't mean he's got everything figured out. Far from it. "I spend all my energy walking upright," he sings. However, he can still be philosophical, and see the good even in struggles. Later in the song, he sings "Maybe this weight was a gift; like I had to see what I could lift." This section is backed by a driving guitar riff, which balances out the more downbeat-sounding verses that make up earlier portions of the song.

"Always Love" is third, and rounds out the opening section of the album with another uplifting melody, similar to that of "Concrete Bed". The chorus is just as catchy, and has just as positive of a message. "Always love," Caws sings. "Hate will get you every time." But he's not preaching, really; instead he's commenting on his own inability to learn this lesson at earlier points in his own life. "I never learned enough, to listen to the voice that told me", he says. This song comes off like a pep talk to a friend, just as "Concrete Bed" did, but by the end of the song, Caws is attributing his own epiphany to something the friend said to him recently--a tossed-off remark that resonated far more deeply than could have been foreseen.

Later on in the album, on "Blankest Year", Nada Surf put everything aside and just rock out. The music is relentlessly upbeat and features the catchiest riffs on the entire album, and the chorus is joyful. "Oh, the hell with it," Caws sings. "I'm gonna have a party." The lyrics to the verses still acknowledge recent turmoil that he's attempting to work through ("I was lonely--thank God the band's doing well"), but it's obvious that he's realized that further worry won't accomplish anything, and the time has come to let it all go, at least for a while. By the end of the song, the chorus has become, "Oh, fuck it," and Caws lets loose with the f-bomb in a positively jubilant manner, reveling in his rule-breaking.

The last song on the album, "Imaginary Friends", is equally upbeat musically, and features some killer vocal harmonies on the chorus. However, the lyrics explore darker states of mind, and about halfway through the song, the music drops into an extended melancholy vamp. "If you fake happiness, then no one knows," Caws sings. "Convince yourself and you've got it made." He hasn't convinced himself, though. When a friend "laugh[s] out loud about someone who couldn't get their shit together," it gives him pause. "I laughed along... I almost wish you knew me better." Right after this line, they return to the catchy chorus, and now, when you hear them harmonizing on the chorus, "Hey, calling all imaginary friends!", it has a sting that didn't seem to be there before.

"The Weight Is A Gift" is about struggling through bad times. Sometimes friends are a source of support, while at other times they can make you feel more alone than ever. But in the end, Nada Surf's message seems to be that as long as you have life, you have hope. The album's title reflects this in it's attempt to see struggles as valuable, in the same way the good times can be. And the fact that so much of the music here is so upbeat and catchy has its own message. This is an album for the sunny days, even the ones when you feel out of sync with the weather outside. This is an album for remembering, even in the bad times, just how good we really have it.

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