Nada Surf looks beyond the big lies on Lucky

Beneath the buoyant, frequently uplifting surface of Nada Surf’s new album, Lucky, pulses a vein of pure American anxiety.

“That’s true,” admits Ira Elliot, on the line from a Los Angeles tour stop. “Even at this late date, we’ve still got Cheney out there saying [in the voice of the Penguin], ”˜Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11.’ We did a lot of campaigning for Kerry back in 2004, and we played a show in Ohio the night of the election. We played one of the older songs on this album, ”˜The Fox’—which is about being lied to by your leaders—that night. We watched the returns there, and I have to tell you we were pretty despondent when we saw Bush had been reelected—if you can call it that.”

All this ties into the larger theme of the album: that people are lucky not in spite of adversity, but because of it. Included in the booklet is a full-page discussion of the title and its ironic implications. It reads like an artist-as-survivor manifesto from the 1920s, except for the hat tips to Melissa Etheridge and Leonard Bernstein. But the screed’s genesis is considerably more up-to-date.

“Actually,” explains the drummer, “that’s an amalgamation of e-mails between Matt and Danny, discussing possible titles.”

Matt, of course, is Matthew Caws, the singer-songwriter responsible for most of the band’s tunes—including early alterna-anthem “Popular” and boppier numbers from earlier in this decade like “Happy Kid” and “Always Love”. And Danny is Daniel Lorca, the dreadlocked bass player who started the band with Caws in 1992 when the two met while attending a French-language high school in New York.

For Nada Surf’s current tour, new tunes like “Whose Authority” and the jollier “Here Goes Something” find the band augmented by keyboardist Louis Lino, who helped produce 2003’s Let’s Go. Whether Nada Surf is playing as a trio or bigger, the band’s sound is well established, with Caws’s sharp lyrics and soaring melodies supported by deftly shifting textures.

“Early on, Matt brought in pieces of songs and we put them together in rehearsals, trying this or that to see what would work,” Elliot says. “These days, he only writes at home, alone in his apartment. He pretty much never writes anything when we’re on the road. Then he brings songs—often quite close to being finished—into the studio and we all work out different parts to them. There’s a lot of input from Danny and me, and it’s become an incredibly free avenue of expression—which is why I’m still in it.”

The drummer has some other outlets, including a country-rock band called Maplewood in which he plays “terrible” guitar. But the main thing is still Nada Surf and its “appetite for construction”, as described in the Lucky CD–booklet manifesto. Just because the band is lucky doesn’t mean it’s no longer ready to roll up its sleeves.

Nada Surf plays the Commodore Ballroom on Saturday (March 29).