Sunday, January 4, 2015
The New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers (2014)
They used to call the New Pornographers a supergroup, a label that never really fit; the members record on their own, but with the exception of Neko Case, none can probably pack a house like the New Porns show I saw in 2010, a fairly understandable distinction for a band so driven on the abstract power of the great pop hook. On the band's first three albums they were a dazzling monument to power pop divorced of its gender and label-based constraints; there was shouted-out joy to spare on them. This came both from the smart, varied writing and from the precision and enthusiasm of the performances; despite the convoluted genesis of the band, one could sense a connection being constantly forged both among themselves and with the audience. What makes this more impressive is that same connection isn't nearly so palpable on Carl Newman's own solo records, which are much more academic exercises in record-collector rock, on Neko Case's, typically passionate but tired, or on Dan Bejar's, so often revolving around the sheer oddity of his persona and sometimes brilliantly barbed lyricism. But together, the band's magic is elevated; their sound is defined by the miracle of the true, devoted collective.
With 2007's Challengers, the focus changed. A.C. Newman's songs were still often phenomenal (to be occasionally upstaged by design by Bejar), but they seemed to be ideas in search of a home, and taken together they sounded unfocused and listless. That went double for the ironically titled Together; several of the tracks ("Crash Years"; "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk") were as good as anything they'd ever released but they did not come across so forcefully, and they seemed less a band than a collision of talent -- a vehicle for Newman's ideas, with periodic guest appearances. As a force they seemed spent, only there was some lingering beauty in there that was, after a while, hard to shake. Pull up Spotify and make a quick playlist of your favorite 2000-2005 New Pornographers tunes and throw in a few from Challengers and Together and my guess is those later cuts will suddenly seem stronger and more vital than you ever realized, especially if you can ignore their overly busy arrangements. Easiest conclusion is that those albums introduced an emotional variance -- the title track of Challengers is a monumentally romantic moment; Bejar's "Myriad Harbor" the kind of song that reminds you why you care about pop music, but both are darker and more methodical than any of the band's previous work -- that wasn't necessarily a perfect fit with their delivery. Together tried to balance this by interspersing upbeat music between the acoustic exercises, but that just made everything seem half-hearted.
It would be fun to report that Brill Bruisers, the out-of-nowhere bullseye that reasserts not just the New Pornographers as a magical force but the song-based indie rock band in general as a worthwhile and elastic endeavor, finds a way to balance Newman's warring instincts -- for a song like "Valkyrie in the Roller Disco," such a revelation on its own when I hear it now, to be integrated with the classic pop bliss and an arrangement that would take it all home, not to be saddled with a bunch of other songs that seem at first blush to be merely driving at the same unstated, unfulfilled thing. Alas, it'd be a lie. Newman himself asserts that the sound of Challengers and Together resulted from a prolonged difficult period in his life, that now he is happy without reservation. Thus Brill Bruisers is the sound of thrilled, bombed-out pleasure because that's where its primary force's headspace currently is.
Yet there is more than that happening here. First is that the New Pornographers sound fully unified again, as though every sound one of them makes is a universally agreed-upon choice of what needed to happen next. On the XTC-like "Wide Eyes," a midtempo folk song that would likely have been presented far more quietly on the last two LPs, the band sounds like, well, a band. They also sound like their hooks no longer serve to hide something deeper -- when Case and Kathryn Calder belt out the sensitive, reassuring "I still see hope for you" on the wonderfully unexpected bridge, it's the exception that proves their rule: beauty lives alongside the canny choruses and boundless sense of pleasure. But for the most part, Brill Bruisers is significant -- as befitting its title -- because it is completely a celebration of the magic of pop songwriting.
It's about the joy of creating something like "Backstairs," a muscular and menacing piece of retro bliss with unexpected twists that uses guitars as texture, synths and voices as a beacon, stop-start dynamics as a currency of audible unison. And despite feeling like the biggest and most thrilling surprise of 2014, the album's major leap forward is kind of obvious when you think about it: since the last time the New Pornographers recorded an album this loud and fevered, Newman has become a more manic and inspired writer. His songs don't throttle and crash constantly anymore, they wind and twirl and bend like "Ticket to Ride" or something. And if the New Pornographers' mood lives or dies by his own whims, he as learned to communicate to them all the more strongly; everyone seems in sync with him here.
The reliance on synths is also new, and carries us through the majority of these songs, but it's a good fit for this band. Though they don't aspire to dance music like comparable explorations of keyboards in power pop -- Blondie's Parallel Lines or the later work of the Apples in Stereo -- they favorably call to mind the best and most relentless earworms of the Cars. The way those beeps and trills bring forth neon dreams and urgent Saturday nights is vividly reminscent of the band that took new wave to the mainstream, and if you're wondering how these probing and mysterious compositions could evoke Ric Ocasek, remember that he put stuff like "I'm in Touch with Your World" and "Moving in Stereo" on his band's big radio-hit-filled LP debut. The new show-stopper "Dancehall Domine" is almost an architectural monument to the idea of the Hit, to the chemical reactions of a band inducing shake-it-up happiness in all of the crowded-out "oh oh oh"s and the huge sound driven by the group's incredibly tight performing and singing. "Hi-Rise" operates similarly, its hooks bubbling under a brilliant melody whose chief secret is nothing more than mere wordless catchiness; it sounds like an undersea level in a video game. It sounds drunk. It sounds glorious. Ditto the tower of vocals, the synths, the "babababaBA" on the midtempo but celebratory opening title.
However, Newman continues to write lyrics and they continue to be inscrutable -- not in a willfully abstract but human and witty manner like Stephen Malkmus or even Bejar but in a manner that suggests he's talking in code about something very specific that he doesn't want us all to know. As the New Pornographers have evolved, this tendency has become more noticeable and slightly unnerving, but on this outing he learns a trick from his bandmate Bejar and forms hooks not just around melody lines, bridges and choruses but around phrases -- the kind that stick in your mind, thus causing the song itself to follow. The words strung together above the elaborate bed of sound "Fantasy Fools" sound like a grand burying of profundity. The lyrics are often too odd to be simple sonic wallpaper, but their strangeness now seems part of the band's grand mystery rather than an oblique distraction. Newman cedes vocals to his partners more than usual this time, and in turn it's not just that Neko Case and Kathryn Calder provide relief from his pretensions as that his own use of repetition humanizes them. It's one more way in which he establishes an illusion whereby he's part of a greater whole, not the mad wizard behind it all, however true the latter really is.
Cars, Blondie, and Records memories notwithstanding, most of these songs could be no one except the New Pornographers, even as they stretch far beyond the sonic bounds of Twin Cinema and its two predecessors. (Its propulsion and trajectory make it frankly feel as if the two albums since 2005 didn't even really happen, or were just breaks in a longer story.) It's difficult to choose one highlight but "Champions of Red Wine" is everything wonderful about this band in 3:40, Case leading an upbeat, driving synthpop creation with lovely Newman backing vocals and a hint of unstated melancholy seldom so lovingly articulated in their work -- another advancement. That extends to the Calder-driven, Magnetic Fields-like "Another Drug Deal of the Heart" that gets its sublimity across in less than two minutes and manages urgency for all its sound of resigned desperation. And "Marching Orders" is classic fun, another Case lead whose rhythm lives up to its title and that demands the million-dollar question: "They say we can't make this stuff up, but what else could we make?" And talking of catchphrases, Newman and the band's reassuring cry out into the night of "you tell me where to be, I'll be there" culminates the mastery of Brill Bruisers -- as much a haunting and personal straightforward celebration as "Challengers," it's also musically as curious and mindbending as the Porns' best work from the beginning, "Mass Romantic" all the way to "Bleeding Heart Show."
Bejar's interludes seem as detached from Newman's general narrative as ever; "Born with a Sound" does have a splendid moment when he steps aside to let Amber Webber sing the bridge, cementing an internal cooperation, but his other two songs are vastly more interesting in general. "War on the East Coast" is most in keeping with the album's overriding sound, new wave with a monster chorus that sounds younger, higher but somehow of a piece with his soft-rock experiment Kaputt. "Spidyr" is more typical of Bejar's work but does inherit subtle dance music textures and boasts one of the record's weirdest moments, a sudden harmonica solo. Like so much else about the New Pornographers' work, Bejar seems to just belong, illogical as it may be -- and somehow, his incongruity gives the group a tension it might not possess otherwise.
It's very hard to stop listening to this album, to pick it apart and determine what makes it tick, to define its perfection so drolly, and certainly to choose which of its extraordinary songs is best and brightest. It simply piles one wonderful song atop another, one hook or chorus or bridge atop the last. Back in 2004 when I discovered Mass Romantic and Electric Version, I felt for the first time like I really believed in something a new band was doing and felt giddy about their existence -- Brill Bruisers not only brings that feeling back, it does it with bodies and minds that are all the more weathered and surly. It is an awakening.