Nada Surf - The Weight Is A Gift
It's been an up-and-down ten years for Nada Surf. Like so many of the geek rock/college rock (call 'em what you will) bands that sprung up in the mid-90s (as the forerunners, it's Weezer that spring most readily to mind), most of the ups came early in their career (in this case, the smash hit debut single "Popular"), and they've spent much of the past decade attempting to recover from the lows (second album The Proximity Effect gaining little of the recognition it deserved from either public, critics or even record label).
But 2003's Let Go was a massive step back into the light for one of the most likeable trios in music, and buoyed by the critical and mildly commercial success of that masterpiece, they return with The Weight Is A Gift. And it's more of the same, really. Sometimes it can be frustrating if it feels like a band aren't moving forwards; but Let Go was the first step into a new direction for Matt Caws' songwriting, with a lot of the raw emotion of The Proximity Effect stripped away and replaced by gently melancholic, affecting songs about loneliness and isolation. With The Weight Is A Gift, Nada Surf continue in this vein, and so the album works well as a companion piece to the third album.
Indeed, like Let Go, on an initial listen the album washes over you slightly, sounding pleasant enough but without anything that particularly grips. Aside from the obviously catchy numbers (of which there always seem to be at least two, in this case "Blankest Year" and the cracking opener "Concrete Bed" doing the honours), the listener could be forgiven for feeling underwhelmed. But one of the strengths of Caws' songwriting is the way in which his songs chip away at you - you can be unaware that you were even paying attention to a song until a moment late on suddenly grabs you, and you have to press the "back" button immediately after the song finishes in order to catch it. The Weight Is A Gift is littered with such moments - both "Do It Again" and "Always Love" meander along for a couple of minutes before opening up in quite startling fashion, demanding a reconsideration of the song as a whole. "Comes A Time", meanwhile, has no such moment, but makes up for this by being a gloriously reflective, gentle five minutes, with one of the best and most heartfelt vocal performances that Caws has committed to record - it's the sort of song you'd listen to while staring out over the sea as the sun sets, for example. Or maybe that's just me.
Where the album sadly falls down, however, is in being possibly the first album the band have done that doesn't feel like a satisfying, complete whole. There's too much in the way of filler that, while not unlistenable, certainly doesn't add a great deal to any kind of emotive experience. There are still nice moments, such as the harmonising at the end of "Armies Walk" or the dropout and triumphant return at the end of closer "Imaginary Friends", but not really enough to make some four or five of the album's eleven tracks stand out in the way you feel they should. And even the record's highs, such as the aforementioned and excellent "Do It Again" and "Comes A Time", don't compare to some of the finer points of the first three albums. There's no "Inside Of Love" or "Paper Boats" here, no song that really staggers you. Which is a shame, as it's still a fine record all round - and considering the troubles the band have had in even getting records out over the past six or seven years, it's just great to see another one on the shelves. But it's perhaps inevitable that when a band continually sets themselves such high standards, they're going to fall slightly short from time to time. Make no mistake, though, an album from Nada Surf even slightly below their best form still comes highly recommended.