Nada Surf have released their seventh album this week, majestically titled The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy, and it’s another glorious collection of 3-4 minute power pop songs. Like a warm comforting blanket, it’s instantly familiar and enjoyable, but there’s always the sense that maybe it’s a little too safe. But should a band experiment for the sake of it and risk breaking a winning formula?
What if The Beatles had carried on singing ‘yeah yeah yeah’ and kept on shaving their faces and maintaining their moptops? What if Bob Dylan had never picked up an electric guitar? What if Mike Love had reined in Brian Wilson’s desire to make more complex and emotionally resonant Beach Boys albums? What if Radiohead had followed up OK Computer with another album of majestic indie rock instead of living their Aphex Twin fantasies on Kid A? We’d have missed out on some incredible and important music, but would that necessarily have been a bad decision?
Take Nada Surf. It’s not actually like they’ve kept on making the same music that they started out making, because their debut album was a slightly patchy Weezer-lite affair, lacking the smooth edges and dreamy melodies that they built up over the next few releases. Their reinvention wasn’t as drastic as some of those examples I mentioned above, but it was a hugely effective one, and The Stars Are Indifferent… works as a fine culmination of that path. If anything, it’s possibly the most consistently great album they’ve done.
And plenty of bands have done well ploughing the same rich furrow album after album. Does anyone really complain when AC/DC or Motörhead release a new batch of songs that sound pretty much the same as the last batch? Were The Ramones just one-trick ponies? That’s three legendary bands, and while you could argue that they largely invented the sound that they stuck with to a greater extent than you could say about Nada Surf, you could criticise them for a lack of experimentation. It’s a generalised argument (The Ramones made an album with Phil Spector, which added a whole ten levels of production to their trademark sound, for example), but not a particularly unfair statement.
Then there’s the bands and acts who constantly changed their musical manifesto, like David Bowie, Goldfrapp, Primal Scream, Alice Cooper, Frank Zappa. Listening their back catalogues shows how diverse their musical output has been and how they managed to endure them to, even the more unwise career diversions. Not every act were so lucky, but lots only made it big after a big shift in their output, often caused by changing band members. For examples, look at Journey, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner or pretty much any other hard rock band from the 70s who discovered the monetary value of a power ballad in the 80s. For the flipside, type ‘bands who changed their sound’ into Google and feel the fury of a million angry heavy metal fans screaming ‘sell out’ at any band who dared lose their intensity in search of a hit.
So, looking at all of this, it’s a wonder bands ever manage to release new material, with the contant warring pressures to either do the same thing over and over again or reinvent themselves entirely. Given Nada Surf’s very successful reinvention of themselves around the turn of the century, it should be fair enough that they can reap the artistic rewards of it still, and The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy is already a strong contender for this site’s Best Albums Of 2012 list (even if it’s the only new album I’ve heard this year). Instead of complaining that they ‘played it safe’, we should celebrate that they got it right, because that’s the only thing that really counts.