Think of Astro Coast as a good litmus test for whether critics and cursory listeners (and the many in between) are feeling prescriptive or descriptive; some of us want to change things, some of us just want to observe. Because, come on: gymnasium reverb sloshed over squiggly West-African-by-induction guitar lines, those three-note James Mercer hooks that would sound inane on a piano but world-rocking when chief songwriter John Paul Pitts belts ‘em out. In other words, Surfer Blood’s debut album is a sonic distillation of the buzzing naughts; we’ve heard it before. This stuff feeds both sides. Surfer Blood carry themselves like they’re making a statement about production — “Harmonix” builds its tension and release almost exclusively out of a washy guitar alternating with that’s-right harmonics — but they really aren’t. Sound, for Pitts, is just a conduit to something much less universal.
So is the guise of ‘consistency,’ meaning the album works pretty well as a strong bunch of songs, hooks, ‘riffs’ (I was once told never to use the word ‘riff’ in a review, but sometimes you can’t help it), but it actually works far better as a cumulative and decidedly inconsistent whole. If anyone else noticed that the album version of “Swim” lost the single’s parenthetical “(To Reach the End),” the change makes more sense than you know: it’d be a mistake to blow through this one on Lala. It comes off as spottier but more vital, as increasingly less playlist fodder with each spin.
Like how college radio fave “Twin Peaks” is actually somehow better for its confused middle (Pitts lets the lyric “This whimsy has put me to sleep” hang awkwardly in the middle of a party), and the way the hookends pull the whole thing taut. He names the song after one arbitrary epiphany — “Twin Peaks and David Lynch met/ On your couch at Syracuse” — and waits until the end of the song to hit us with that fist-pumper a second time. It’s withholding in the best way possible, more storytelling than instant gratification. Like, no matter how many bizarre directions this relationship takes, it all comes together again on a couch in Syracuse. This isn’t just champagne-cork pop; it’s a philosophy — it’s the way Pitts’ world operates.
So it’s only when we actually abandon the notion that Astro Coast is supposed to be the 10-track bam-bam-bam distillation/pop album/whatever that it looks like that we can see just how much it actually earns. Especially after the sludgy and slightly overlong “Anchorage,” it’d be easy to miss the album’s candid closer, “Catholic Pagans.” But its brevity and heart-on-sleeve lyrics — about the tension between a life of substance abuse and a ‘clean’ relationship — cement it as the album’s most gut-clutchingly earned moment. For the first time, his lyrics feel like he’s actually talking to you, crystal clear confessional with room for wit: “When I met you, I broke the mold/ I fell apart and combed my hair.”
And no, as an analogy, the song’s oxymoronic title isn’t that complicated — it could be any oxymoron with a dash of devotion — but neither, according to Pitts, is his final decision to flee his relationship. When he sings the last line on the album, “have to go,” he’s running away from the contradiction. Logical fallacy cancels the album out. Maybe that’s the key to the whole album, how it can seem to be a blog-fisher one moment and slap you upside the head another: it dissolves before you actually know what hit you. But for a lot of us, that’s all the more reason to dive right back in.