Twenty years ago, in the long shadow of grunge and with pop-punk getting ready to dominate the alternative music scene, Nada Surf released a single that, for many who grew and came of age at the time, would become the Nada Surf song. The song was Popular, a sarcastic recitation – delivered with convincing zeal – of Gloria Winters’ 1964 etiquette guide, Penny’s Guide to Teen-Age Charm and Popularity, set against driving music that ebbed and flowed perfectly, and established the bands credentials in alternative music. In the two decades since releasing Popular, Nada Surf have adopted a more indie-rock oriented sound, and their eighth studio album, You Know Who You Are, cements their progression in this direction.
As their first official outing as a quartet, Matthew Caws (vocals, guitar), Daniel Lorca (bass), and Ira Elliot (drums) are joined by ex-Guided By Voices guitarist Doug Gillard, who inconspicuously slips into place with the band. As a vocalist, Caws has the unique trait of being the only singer I can think of whose voice has gone up in register over the course of their career. This change in vocal delivery matches the move away from the gritty, grunge-tinged, sound of the nineties, towards the jangly, indie-rock-pop tunes that makes up You Know Who You Are.
That Caws is a strong, pop-oriented, song writer cannot be doubted, and across the length and breadth of You Know Who You Are, he delivers consistently pleasing songs, but that consistency isn’t completely problem free. Songs on this album exist in two states: slower indie-rock, or faster indie-rock. Little distinguishes songs from one another, which leaves the album feeling a little beige. Aurally, New Bird and You Know Who You Are are the most distinct tracks, fitting at the fastest end of the albums two speeds, and incorporating a grittier sound which provides a nice nod towards the bands origin in the nineties alternative scene.
Friend Hospital probably represents the best combination of the album’s musical and lyrical sensibilities, with the strummed guitar intro providing a compelling texture over which Caws’ can layer his lyrics, such as with the chorus: “so much better/that we’re not together/’cause I will not lose you”. With little musically differentiating the songs, Caws’ lyrics are left to do the heavy lifting of grabbing the listener’s attention, so it is fortunate that he is an accomplished lyricist who can turn a phrase and tell a story. Believe You’re Mine, Out Of The Dark, and Animal, are prime examples of Caws’ ability to captivate the listener with lyrics tinged with a hopeful sadness.
You Know Who You Are is a lyrically driven album which never missteps, except by not fully utilising the musical talent available to take some sonic risks; risks that could have paid off by taking a solid album and turning it into a standout.