Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is 'The Proximity Effect' by Nada Surf.
Being popular is a dangerous thing. Just ask Nada Surf, the Brooklyn trio thrust into the global spotlight in 1996 thanks to their MTV smash video for their comical song Popular, which poked fun at the traditional high school politics of jocks, nerds and cheerleaders. The problem, of course, was that their debut album ‘High/Low’ didn’t contain any more comical anecdotes poking fun at the Hollywood version of the American coming of age.
In fact, Popular reaffirmed what goes up must come down quicker than a falling apple ever could. Nada Surf were hot and then they were cold; very, very cold. So cold in fact that when they handed in their follow up, ‘The Proximity Effect’, Elektra Records asked where the single was and encouraged them to go back to the drawing board and come back with Popular II.
When the band refused they were made record several covers versions to be included on the album, including Why Are You So Mean To Me? Originally by Vitreous Humor and Black and White by The dB's.
It was a flabbergastingly bad decision from the record company, with both cover versions being considerably worse than Nada Surf’s original material. Despite this, the A&R department persisted in ignoring their ears and ploughed ahead with plans to release Why Are You So Mean To Me? as the first single, ignoring the band’s reservations.
When it was eventually suggested to Nada Surf that they include an acoustic version of Popular, they refused and caught the first wave out of Elektra Records to Dropped Town, entering into a two year battle to gain ownership of their songs.
‘The Proximity Effect’, shit covers and all, was released in Europe in 1998, but it wasn’t until 2000 that it finally got an official release in the US with Silent Fighting and Spooky replacing the A&R’s obtuse brainwaves.
At the same time, it’s easy to see why Elektra were flummoxed by ‘The Proximity Effect’. Gone was the Generation X slacker romanticism of getting stoned, overcoming your social anxiety and falling in love whilst daydreaming about tree houses and psychic caramel, to be replaced by weighty, mature topics such as date rape and sexual consent.
In the era of the crude high-school sex comedy, record companies weren’t prepared to take risks with political statements that ran against the tide of youth culture. Even in the current political climate you still won’t find many - if any - songs telling men to keep their mitts to themselves on the radio.
Though they never sought it, Matthew Caws and co. have never received the credit they deserved for putting not one but two songs about sexual consent onto an album aimed squarely at the college market. Mother’s Day told men in no uncertain terms that it was wrong to rape and women that they were right to report it. Robot examined the long-term impact that being sexually assaulted has on survivors; how it affects their interpersonal relationships and their loved ones.
In many ways these songs are the natural successors to Popular, which beneath the sugared sarcasm of its video was a damning indictment of the peer pressure-cooker driven sexual exploitation of teenagers by society.
The album bursts into life with the cryptic radio-friendly bop of Hyperspace, chugging bass and guitars to the fore. Amateur sees the return of the sad nerd who consoles himself by hanging a disco ball at his party after being told he should seek professional help (again). It’s okay though because “Every night is New Year’s Eve” so every morning is an opportunity for a fresh start - so far, so Nada Surf.
The forlorn romantic streak continues through the voyeuristic 80 Windows, which charts the observations made during the awkward silences and distractions of a disintegrating relationship (“The moon is closer to the sun than I am to anyone).
Bacardi is an update on The Smiths' assertion in How Soon is Now? - “So you go and you stand on your own. And you leave on your own. And you go home and you cry. And you want to die.” It's part up-tempo instrumental, part sad banger with Caws proclaiming, “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.”
While Troublemaker and Bad Best Friend are clearly the weakest tracks on the album, muddy production drowns Firecracker and Silent Fighting in a garage rock no man’s land. The Voices however foreshadows Nada Surfs leap into melodic pop on their next album, ‘Let Go’, and Spooky more than justifies its inclusion in the rebooted album.
While there is a lot to love about ‘The Proximity Effect’ it’s hard not to wonder what the album would have sounded like if the record company had the band’s back. The production quality on all of Nada surf’s albums going forward is pristine in comparison, despite being released by much smaller labels - as ‘Let Go’ and ‘The Weight Is A Gift’ prove, if you back Nada Surf they will deliver.