The album, released by Barsuk/City Slang on January 24, is a snappier, more buoyant effort than the softer, ardent sound that has defined much of the better-known indie corners (Death Cab for Cutie, the Shins, Bon Iver) for the past several years. It's certainly more upbeat than 2003's earnest "Let Go" or 2005's mercurial "The Weight Is a Gift," and in a way, this makes the album more reminiscent of the band's angsty-yet-unpretentious 1996 breakout hit, "Popular."
The tempo of "The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy" rarely relents, though, which lends the feeling of forced amiability. I'm not asking for the perpetual nubbly sweater-wearing whisper of a Death Cab For Cutie record, but a little disaffection wouldn't kill anyone. Although I kept waiting for a little crunch, itch, or well-deserved lyrical gripe, "The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy" is actually pretty innocuous, the crisp guitars and gentle harmonizing in songs like "Waiting For Something," "Jules and Jim" and "Looking Through" sounding less like a cohesive release and more like a quietly-marketed Goo Goo Dolls/Gin Blossoms/Third Eye Blind project.
The general lyrical theme suggests a nostalgia for carefree, promise-rich youth. Sometimes this is more subtle, as with the repeating phrase "recursive tulips" in "The Moon Is Calling," and sometimes so obvious it's silly, as in "Teenage Dreams" or the line "I can't believe the future's happening to me" in "The Future."
Combined with guitarist and lead vocalist Matthew Caws' forever-young falsetto, it all suggests the juvenile hopefulness of youth but none of the anxiety. I don't mean to imply that all good music is borne out of misery, but one of Nada Surf's songwriting gifts has been an acerbic wit delivered with unapologetic directness. I don't know if the intention was to return to a simpler way to write songs, but the band is cleverer than this, and has been gutsier in the past.
This is not to say there are no bright points. There are a few instrumental saving graces on this album: the mournful trumpet in the otherwise ordinary breakup song "Let the Fight Do the Fighting," for instance, or the shimmery strings in "When I Was Young." The constructed distortion of "Clear Eye Clouded Mind" leads off the album, and the other full song standout, "No Snow On the Mountain," brings a tinge of the disaffection I so badly wanted. Unfortunately, this Hail Mary of a song comes too late and after too much passionless, textureless soft rock.
The name Nada Surf refers to an existential state of nothingness, or perhaps a Buddhist state of non-attachment. It's about living in a sea of quiet static, I guess, and although fitting to play in the background somewhere, unfortunately, quiet static is how the album sounds. After a nearly 20-year-long career, "The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy" is less about stars and more about indifference.