I remember picking it up out of the crate, glancing at the cover, and knowing there would be something useful inside. It was a couple months before college graduation and the public radio station on my campus was selling off all the “for promotional purposes only” discs that record labels had distributed, hoping for some college radio airtime. Morehead State Public Radio was, indeed, a college station, but it seldom played music and when it did—well, there were banjos involved, long before banjos were hip. Some Barsuk Records intern clearly hadn’t done their research on public radio formats in Eastern Kentucky, and I’ll be forever grateful.
See, that rainy afternoon on a sidewalk in front of Breckenridge hall, I picked up Nada Surf’s “Let Go” for a dollar. I’ve scratched up and re-bought three copies since then, so the band and record label were eventually made whole on my quasi-legal purchase.
Of course, I already knew the band: the talk-rock, one-off hit “Popular” blistered airwaves and video playlists during the latter half of my high school days—it felt like an anthem of life on the fringes of half a dozen social groups while ensconced in none of them. But that anthem played on the radio so often I never bothered to pick up the album and listen to the song’s smart pop-punk neighbors.
When I got back to my dorm that afternoon, I expected more of the same, maybe Matthew Caws talking over some more songs on the way to driving, angst-ridden choruses, but what greeted me was something closer to the space I mentally and emotionally occupied at the time: the soft but driving guitar of “Blizzard of ’77,” followed by mellow and thoughtful times wondering such things as, “what it feels like, on the inside of love.”
It’s become one of those rare albums where each song transports me back to a time, a place. “Let Go” drops me firmly back at the end of college and the start of professional life every time it cues up. It’s the kind of disc that when I hear one song, I kill the shuffle function and listen to the whole album a time or two.
That’s exactly what I did that first afternoon: I took the disc back to my room and listened through once while doing homework, then a second time as I simply sat and stared out the window, listening close. I was a journalism student, already smitten with words, but this was the album that snapped something inside my head. I hit repeat again and moved to my desk, then struck out on my first feeble attempt at story writing. This was the album that made me try turning words into art.
Nada Surf’s arc has mimicked my own life, as I’m sure it has for many fans. After getting mischaracterized as a one-hit-wonder then producing a gorgeous and critically acclaimed set in “Let Go” (“The Proximity Effect” was released in between, but just in Europe, where folks could deal with a good album that didn’t need radio singles), they followed up with “The Weight is a Gift,” which again struck me just where I was in life, with that heartfelt and apt sigh of a refrain: “Oh, **** it, I’m going to have a party.”
Shortly after that refrain, I ditched me career and headed back to grad school because, oh **** it, I was going to be a writer.
I was in grad school, peering out over the next phase of life when they released Lucky, complete with the seminal (and again, apt) line, “But baby ice is growing on the wing, you rolled the dice but you don’t know anything…”
By 2010, they released a cover disc, ready to borrow from someone else for a bit, and that’s how life felt for me, too.
Then there was “The Stars Are Indifferent from Astronomy.” I’d just moved back from Europe. Matthew Caws was living in Europe, releasing videos of himself singing “When I was Young” in a French church. All of that hit home.
Finally, a couple years ago came “You Know Who You Are,” with a general theme of getting past sadness, and there’s really nothing else that hits home quote like that message, especially in the middle of one’s thirties.
At my wedding, I danced with my mother to “Always Love;” I picked it because that’s what she’s always taught me, above everything else, and so that song resonates through my family in a memorable and important way.
I’ve cried along with “Your Legs Grow” and “Friend Hospital.”
I’ve tried endlessly to learn how to play the deceptively difficult acoustic riff of “Blizzard of ’77” on my own, to little avail.
I once saw the band in T.J. Maxx before a show. If ever there were a convergence of two of my favorite earthly things, it happened in that moment.
For all those moments and all that music, it’s still “Let Go” that’s the time machine, that makes everything stop and sends me back to a specific time and place, before it all got quite so confusing and riddled with second guesses and derailed daydreams. I like where I am now. But I love the moment that album transports me to, it just for a few seconds: the moment before everything.
Tuesday night, I took my wife to Nashville, where Nada Surf closed up the North American leg of their tour, one in which they celebrated that 15-year old album by playing it all, track by track. It sounded as glistening, as important, as full of promise and hope as it did the afternoon I handed over a buck and took those songs back to my dorm.
Before the show started, an old friend from my time living in Tennessee and a man I regard as one of the kindest humans on this planet, Spencer Huffines, walked up and said hi—another, brief but incredible timelime recap. The band dug deep, played songs I’d never heard them play live, going without an opener and hammering away for two-and-a-half hours. There were some folks in the crowd who chatted on their own between the hits and the highlights, at which point they tuned in and belted along with gusto. But most of us were locked in to the time machine, present and transported, thinking about what’d been and what could have been, wondering what’s next, and collected there by the brilliance of art.
The thing that happened in the Mercy Lounge Tuesday night was the very best of what any artist could hope for—the culmination of the life of the sort of ambition that was first sparked in me the night I heard that album.