Ten years and four albums on from its debut, Surfer Blood returns with Carefree Theatre. The album has a back-to-the-roots ethos about it, and rightly so. It coincides with both the band’s return to its first label, Kanine Records, and frontman John Paul Pitts moving back to his hometown of West Palm Beach, Florida. Given the controversies and tragedy this band has lived through, an album about coming full circle is a bold creative choice. They started the 2010s poised to conquer and finished it by stubbornly surviving. Hard-won perspective is a good fit for Pitts’ songwriting, but too often on Carefree Theatre he seems to be running in place while looking back, and many of the songs stumble because of it.
Still, there is a lot to love here. Album opener “Desert Island” plays to all of the band’s strengths. A sludgy melodic bass line punches through into a soaring chorus layered with harmonies courtesy of guitarist Mike McCleary and bassist Lindsey Mills. It’s everything you love about Surfer Blood jammed into less than two minutes. Rest assured the requisite lyrical call out to “the beach” shows up right on schedule. But Pitts assesses the sand and the waves and declares there’s “nothing to nurture us here,” turning one of the band’s signature tropes back on itself.
“Parkland (Into The Silence)” is another standout. Released earlier this year and marking the second anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, it’s a moving tribute to the enduring courage of the survivors. It’s a chugging, jangly battle cry with a spiraling call-and-response guitar solo outro, and the unlikely source of the most optimistic themes on the album. “This time could be the spark, the start of something new/ Can you see the gatekeepers abandoning their posts/ You’ll rip apart the gridlock/ You’re getting close,” Pitts sings.
“In The Tempest’s Eye” finds Pitts reflecting on a failed relationship over a driving, airy chord progression. The spacey middle section unfolds into a strumming outro that wouldn’t be out of place on a Bossanova-era Pixies song. It’s a widescreen moment that pairs with a shift in the narrative of the song to create the best moment on the album.
Beyond that, the surprises come fewer and further between. Any promise of paddling out to unfamiliar waters is undone with less ambitious songs like “Karen” and “Unconditional” that seem to exist merely to sound like Surfer Blood playing Surfer Blood songs. And while the arrangements offer a great deal of variety, the production seems determined to reign in emotions and performances that should be breaking free. “Dewar” and “Rose Bowl” feel like career-defining songs suffocating under a lack of sonic imagination. And for all the soul-searching trips down memory lane, there’s a cold distance to the vocals that works against Pitt’s vulnerability. At the end of “Dewar” he (finally) cuts loose over McCleary’s dissonant fuzzed-out outro (sadly buried in the mix), and it’s a glimpse into where this album could’ve gone–more theatre, less carefree.
Missed opportunities aside, this world is better off for having albums like Carefree Theatre in it. Hearing Surfer Blood chase its wave during what more and more resembles a permanent drought in the world of guitar bands is still a beautiful noise, and Pitts’ remains one of his generation’s more underrated songwriters. Perhaps now that Surfer Blood has paused to reflect on itself, the best moments of this album are setting the stage for the next 10 years. Here’s hoping.
Follow Skott Bennett at Twitter.com/skottbennett.