It’s been over twenty years since New York pop-rockers Nada Surf rose to prominence with their hit single Popular, a characteristically ‘90s lite-grunge tune lifted from the band’s debut album High/Low. In that time their seven studio albums have all been met with steadily positive critical and commercial success, and one should imagine such a trend is set to continue with this compelling eighth LP. A finely blended concoction of acoustic indie-pop and some heavier, grittier sections, You Know Who You Are is a record emblematic of this much-loved quartet’s enduring sound.
Though until now Nada Surf hadn’t put out any music since 2012, the band have always been busy, releasing five albums in ten years prior to that and, in the cases of vocalist Matthew Caws and guitarist Doug Gillard, pursuing successful solo careers in the meantime. The wait will certainly have been worth it for faithful supporters of the group: this is an assured and triumphant return to form that sees the band play its cards just right by sticking to what it knows.
There are many factors that contribute to the success of You Know Who You Are, but one that really stands out is the band’s shrewd attitude towards its vocal arrangements. Never wanting to overdo it, Caws and co. strike the right balance between sweet harmonies that climb the octaves and allowing their lead singer the space to flourish on his own. Mid-album track Animal is symptomatic of this juxtaposition, as Caws’ high-pitched, sometimes androgynous-sounding vocals are intermittently, but affectingly, supported by his bandmates throughout. It adds a ‘60s folk quality to a track already brimming with Jack White-esque minimalist class.
Elsewhere there is little in the way of variation to be found, but one suspects that might be the point. To stay true to their eighth full album’s title, Nada Surf assure us that they know who they are. Believe You’re Mine and Out of the Dark play to the band’s strengths, falsetto harmonies floating above clean electric guitars and straightforward beats, whilst hints of pop-punk emerge on Cold to See Clear and New Bird as pacey drum fills and dirty guitars add a little edge to proceedings. It’s a slight deviation from the norm, but nothing remotely experimental enough to upset loyal followers; in fact if anything New Bird is closer to Nada Surf’s earlier work than any other track on the record.
This LP won’t be for everyone: it’s definitely a crowd-pleaser, and though fans of the band should be happy it’s unlikely to convert new listeners. The album hardly emanates innovation, this is the kind of alternative music we’ve been listening to for the best part of thirty years, but then that isn’t what Nada Surf are going for. It’s the sound of a band that has grown old gracefully, and in this day and age that’s something for which we can all be grateful.
You Know Who You Are was released on 4 March 2016 via City Slang.