Exiting Purgatoryby Grant Moser
Purgatory: a place or state of punishment wherein…the souls of those who die in God’s grace may make satisfaction for past sins and so become fit for heaven.
- Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary
Here are two tales of leaving behind what you don’t need anymore and moving towards what you want.
1. “When you wanna go, I know you will.”
The first is about a band that made it big: they signed with Elektra and saw a song from their debut album become a hit and MTV staple. The band’s follow-up album, the proximity effect, sold well and received critical acclaim in Europe. This is where the wheels fell off. Or perhaps where the group, Nada Surf, decided they’d had enough.
“Elektra didn’t hear what they wanted to hear: a hit,” said singer/guitarist Matthew Caws. The album’s U.S. release was pulled. But the band had invested too much in the proximity effect for it to be shelved. So they fought to get out of the contract, which they did, and they fought for control of the album, which they got, and then they released it on their own label.
The album’s tone is happy but understated: an alternative sound with melody, moody and exuberant, seemingly ready to burst at any time. The band reminds me of a combination between a sort-of-Weezer and a modern Cheap Trick. “We’re too pop for underground and we’re too quirky for mainstream,” said Caws. “We’re in a purgatory in the middle and we’re fine with that.”
The tunes feel poppy, but the lyrics do not. Speaking to a generation distanced from itself, the songs address disaffection and distance between people. “There is such a surfeit of small artificial distractions around us all the time,” Caws said. “There are too many details, too many schemes.”
Part of the blame lies on the society we live in, as “Bacardi” describes in a tale about a drunken walk home from a party:
You go home and spend your life alone with the stereo, watching the late show, or force yourself out in the night, to meet your generation, you feel like claymation in fluorescent light, on our knees, we made it hard to see, we made it hard to breathe and the air was thin.
The tension between the seemingly pop/alternative tune and the lyrics that talk about how “there’s no right and there’s no wrong, there’s just the balance of things” creates a pull, making each part say more than it would on its own.
Seeing them live also makes the songs speak more. Playing at Brownie’s recently to a packed house, Nada Surf sounded great, perhaps even better than on the album. The set was full of energy and they looked like rock stars up on stage. Go see them live if you can, and if you can’t – turn the volume up when listening to their CD.
2. “Now all you are is a line in a song to me.”
The second tale is about a traveling band, one that started off in Georgia and made its way to Brooklyn through a long, strange trip. The Mendoza Line is not an easy band to define and that’s fine with singer/guitarist Peter Hoffman. “We listen to a lot of music and things seep in, you know? Maybe our publishing company’s name says it all: Avant Drunk.”
Seeping into there album—Lost in Revelry—are Dylan, Costello, the Replacements, Iggy Pop (albeit mellowed), Built to Spill, Cowboy Junkies, and even a smattering of Luscious Jackson. Overall, it features slower songs, but you don’t seem to notice as you listen. The shifting lineup of singers and songwriters (everyone in the band writes music and lyrics for their own songs) keeps your attention in this witty and inspired effort.
“The lyrics are definitely the key,” said Hoffman. “A Damn Good Disguise” features words like “You turn a blind eye to a blank wall and that’s our life,” and “Things you were given that you claim to find vile you cling to like cancer.” The words dance like partygoers around hot coals and the folksy tunes are exposed as dark and naked when these lyrics come to light.
Hoffman feels the songs, though written by different members of the group, all are an indictment of their age group. “The songs have a lot to do with this age of being in between college and adulthood. The album title refers to this time in our lives, trying to have a good time and grow up at the same time. We’re saying goodbye to people that were important in our lives that aren’t anymore. This is a stage in life no one ever talks about. The time between 22 and 30 is purgatory.”
Would anyone disagree?
Nada Surf released The Proximity Effect on it’s own label in September 2000, and has a new, as-yet-untitled album coming in June, followed by a tour.
The Mendoza Line released Lost in Revelry in February, will follow with a tour, is planning a retrospective album for September, and expects a new album next year.
Grant Moser is an art writer and frequent contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.