The members of Nada Surf are no strangers to popularity. The New York alternative rock band became the torchbearers for satirical teenage angst in 1996 with the release of their first single, “Popular,” off of their debut effort High/Low. The hit single propelled the band to worldwide success, allowing it to either self-release or independently release their subsequent albums. The band maintained it name recognition through frequent touring and stints on the soundtrack for “The O.C.” The trio’s fifth studio album, Lucky, continues the band’s tradition of slowed-down abrasive rock with an emotional edge.
“See These Bones,” a collaboration with Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard, is Lucky’s first single. It also happens to be arguably the album’s best track. The eerily breathy track is a haunting opener, standing in contrast to the rest of the album’s poppier taste. A seemingly unlikely pick for the album’s starting point, the track is reminiscent of the band’s earlier, emotional cuts from the previous decade. As the song’s tension reaches the threshold, Nada Surf frontman Matthew Caws belts desperately, “Look around, see these bones / What you are now, we were once.” Complimented by the subtle unison of his bandmates’s backing vocals, the track sets the standard for the album’s remaining songs.
The record’s subsequent tracks serve as a forum for Nada Surf’s diverse musical experimentation. While most fit the familiar format of uninventive pop-rock, the album refuses to be pigeonholed into a single bland genre. Unwilling to explore only one musical style, Lucky alternates between top 40-friendly, sugary lullabies (“Weightless”), melodic pop anthems (“From Now On”) and snappy, yet luscious, beat-driven love songs (“Beautiful Beat”). These tracks recall the band’s earlier pop-driven efforts, without branching out into different styles. Rather than experimenting with inventive song structures or exotic instrumentals, Nada Surf falls back onto the musical formula it knows best.
The band escapes this formula on “The Fox,” a wispy, atmospheric track that sharply contrasts with the rest of the album. While fitting into a traditional song structure, the track experiments with combinations of guitar chords and violin strings. Over these distinct chords and a mix of reverb, Caws croons, “We’re in a different war / With ourselves, and some of you.” Despite attempting a different approach, “The Fox” fails to create the tension and momentum appropriate for the song, and it ends all too shortly.
A seasoned Nada Surf fan will be happy to see the band’s return to simple pop beats and select emotional cuts on Lucky. Although there is no fault in falling back on past musical techniques, it’s disappointing that a decade-old band fails to explore new styles and to tinker with experimentation. Despite these shortcomings, Lucky offers an adequate listen for indie-pop lovers and late-’90s nostalgists.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars