“I looked in the mirror today, then I got scared away.”
Surfer Blood‘s debut record, Astro Coast, could be described as “fun”. The jangling, joyous hooks of “Floating Vibes” and “Take It Easy”, talk of learning to surf and bright nods to classic surf rock as well as modern indie heroes like The Shins. At its most serious and thought out, John Paul Pitts and the gang were name-dropping Twin Peaks when talking about confusing relationship dynamics. But next week, the band gives us a new full-length endeavor with Pythons, following 2011’s excellent EP Tarot Classics. Musically, Pythons doesn’t stray too far from its predecessors, but thematically, “fun” is about the furthest from the band it has ever been – even the pop culture references (“Blair Witch”) are darker. John Paul Pitts has been going through some seriously evident self-reflection, and the box of his thoughts and emotions over the last two years has been upturned and emptied onto the carpet in the form of these 10 tracks. With their major label debut, Surfer Blood leave their boyhood whims of “I’m too young to feel defeated” to fully embrace the upside and downside of adulthood and celebrity. With both come massive opportunity for both success and humiliation, and on Pythons, John Paul Pitts embraces them wholeheartedly.
Surfer Blood kick their record off with three of the strongest pop efforts they’ve shown us so far, perhaps in an effort to slightly soften the blow of the next couple tracks. But that doesn’t mean they don’t play a larger role on the record. The album’s lead single “Demon Dance” is a wonderfully fun tune, documenting Pitts’ desire to be a hero for the girl he loves rather than just another whim. “I can suck the venom out of your bones, come on baby let me connect to the server, I could be the one who cuts through the overgrowth.” Similarly communicated, in the song’s quirky video, Pitts is a security guard who falls in love with a woman he is able to help. While simply stated, this relationship dynamic – not only in romantic relationship, but with friends and peers as well – is a great place for Pythons to start. Later, on “Squeezing Blood”, Pitts revisits this idea, when “damning allegations come to light, stapled to the background in black and white”. Here, Pitts then asks, “You sure you can count on your friends?” Pretty heavy stuff. Following “Demon Dance” is “Gravity”, an upbeat surf sugar rush about relationship and compromise that you won’t understand without a basic understanding of gravitational physics in space.
“Weird Shapes” introduces the album’s other big theme, that of immediacy. The song is pretty epic, lyrically, with melting wings courtesy of Icarus, suits of armor, and watery ocean voyages. But through it all, Pitts is trying to communicate an urgency of self. “I just want to hit it hard before it’s too late”, he says counting on the suit of armor that is the small shred of confidence that this is his moment. In two years, Pitts has journeyed on an odyssey of intention, and with “Weird Shapes”, we see that he is making some sort of progress in figuring out what drives him and where he is headed.
But once the exposition of the first three tracks closes, Pitts and the band cut a little deeper. On “I Was Wrong” and “Squeezing Blood”, Pitts jumps on a pretty dark kick, bordering on plain old self-deprecation. “I Was Wrong” sees him begging for forgiveness for a friend whom he has wronged deeply. “In a place riddled with liars and fools, you are now taking the high road out. All along, I was wrong, I wrong… Moving on with or without”. Here, Pitts sees that now, he’s just another statistic, when he’d much rather be redeemed to a place of piece in this relationship. Mixed with a super 90s Weezer-esque arrangement backing him, Pitts’ cries of anguish are completely sincere. It’s almost painful to hear. The emotional episode of “I Was Wrong” empties itself into the numbness of “Squeezing Blood”. Here, Pitts realizes that there are some things you can’t take back. “Wash away the ashes from today”, Pitts moans, like an injured animal, while the band plays one of the brightest verse hooks on the record. The contract will churn your stomach. From there, brokenhearted, Surfer Blood play the pity card with “Say Yes To Me”, a playful pout that throws down the surf punk hooks more so than any of track on the record. But then bitterness retakes the wheel for two more rounds.
With “Prom Song”, Surfer Blood end their new record with a great recap. Prom, as everyone knows, is not the best night of your life, or for that matter, anywhere near it. Rather it’s an expensive, high stress let down that loses its shine and visage exactly five minutes after its over. Maybe Pitts sees these early years of Surfer Blood success as another “prom moment” in life. The temptation of the limelight, the promise of stardom and travel and glory and unfaltering love… the offer is, as Pitts has discovered, much shinier than the redeemed prize. The heaviness of “Slow Six” turns upwards for the cool breeze groove of the guitar and bass interplay. “Something else is out there for me”, Pitts sings, “I just can’t be bothered – I don’t want to know.” Maybe he has caught onto something here. Having a clear picture in your mind of the perfect future to match your present state often just ends in disappointment. “Tonight we pull the plug; sweep you underneath the rug.” The album’s most melodious offering is also its most heartbreaking.
When Surfer Blood played at the KEXP studio a week and a half ago, they were super nice, super mellow, and super smiley. After hearing Pythons in its entirety, it is evident that Surfer Blood are more than just surf tunes and smiles. John Paul Pitts and the gang have crafted a wonderful collection of tunes here, maturing the fuzzy, hook-driven feel of Astro Coast and the sugary simplicity of Tarot Classics into a melodic offering led first and foremost by excellent harmonic instrumental interplay and beautiful songwriting. Pythons documents an emotional pit of snakes for John Paul Pitts, but throughout the album, there is a light that never goes out at the end of the tunnel. It is good to know that with time and with humility, reconciliation is possible, and the difficulties of becoming a man are complimented by a more enlightened and well-rounded existence – not bad for a surf rock band at all.
Pythons is out June 11 through Warner Bros on CD and vinyl. Listen to the whole album via NPR for the next couple days. Surfer Blood is on tour with Foals now. Check out our coverage of their Seattle date on June 1 here.