Sunday, February 4, 2018
The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema (2005)
When pop music jolts you, it sounds supernatural -- it can seem engineered by magic to your inexpressible need for it to lift and shock you in some way, yet the closer it draws to a kind of traditional perfection, the less likely it is to be noticed. "Stay" by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, "This Whole World" by the Beach Boys and "She Loves You" by the Beatles are powerful records beyond all rationalization because they're warped and human; it's not a question of music that aligns perfectly with the tastes of an audience, but one of music that rouses and tickles with a strangeness that, once heard, is instantly irresistible. You never knew you needed it until you heard it. Think back briefly to "She Loves You" or "I Want to Hold Your Hand" or even Mickey & Sylvia's "Love Is Strange": no matter how much you love these records for all of their alien, sinister oddness that operates simultaneously with their pursuit of gushing pleasure, can't you sort of understand having the kind of ears that tell you this is horrible, that insist you turn it off immediately? That tension is fundamental to the most addictive examples of "power pop" and the music that led to it.
In Carl Newman's case, this seems to tie inexorably with what Life in Hell and Simpsons creator Matt Groening once called a latent desire to annoy, coexisting with an eagerness to please. Because his solo albums are much more clean-cut than the music he writes for his ragtag combo the New Pornographers, you can't help but feel that isn't entirely down to his compositions being so arch, messy, beautiful and strangely unresolved (which is the secret); something also gets ignited by the musicians and singers he assembles, by the way that they fill out the sound and the way that they seem driven to come to know the unknowable in Newman's obscure, often infuriatingly empty lyrics. Make a few false steps and the music turns into Devo, a cynical commentary on the ease of consumption, a mockery of people for being susceptible to all this. Instead their voices blend together sweetly, instead their worrying of the songs becomes a union of music and performer, eventually of audience. In other words Newman writes the songs with hidden joy in them, and the rest of the band -- as of 2005: Newman, Kathryn Calder (a new addition for this record whose presence changes the band's vocal dynamic for good), Neko Case (the only singer who does not contribute any instruments), John Collins, Kurt Dahle, Todd Fancey, Blake Thurier and Dan Bejar -- set out to find their essence, and the enormity of the pop that results is as infectious and overwhelming as anything that's ever been labeled "indie."
The band's third album, Twin Cinema, is their purest, because Newman's precision (and Bejar's, on his uncanny evocation of the Newman style -- all incessant chord changes and resistance to followable rhythm -- "Jackie, Dressed in Cobras") was never more dogged, and never more drowned out by the band's warmth and enthusiasm, a real-time conquering of distracted "coolness." As a result, the album becomes an expression of a purely thrilling relationship with hooks and melodies on the part of its players as well as those listening, much as Mass Romantic was a monument to the exuberant satisfaction of the performance itself. Newman can certainly be persuaded out of his record-collector groove by the Pornographers' chaos; the title cut recasts him as a rock & roll singer losing his cerebral hardness like never before, and the band guides him into chaos and back on a bridge that's first cacophonous then surprisingly lovely; he could not have found this give-and-take with the song on his own, which is why it requires the blown-out extremity of the guitars and backing vocals to egg him on. As he puts it on the equally assertive and mad "Use It," "you had to send the Wrecking Crew after me." (He probably meant a wrecking crew, not the Wrecking Crew, but sometimes we don't know what we mean, least of all Carl Newman.)
"Use It" is a great example of how much Newman expects from the other members of the band, and how far beyond that they manage to deliver. His song is a seemingly infinite parade of hooks, lifts, drops that is delivered with too much intensity to have proved deeply enjoyable as anything but an exercise were it not performed with either languid peace or uproarious maximized dedication, and of course they choose the latter -- with a dark piano line, drums pounding supersonically from wherever above, and everyone giving themselves a sore throat. The chorus is a bit Cars, yet even the Cars would never work something until it bled like this. They certainly wouldn't attempt "The Jessica Numbers," with a nutty, math rock-like time signature, that seems to so exhaust them they can't help but sound a little more lax and willing to be led around, which is all the better.
In addition to the general ingenuity of these songs, placing Twin Cinema a cut above the New Pornographers' first two albums (and most of their work since) is its willingness to stretch into new territories less expected than the more songwriter-nerd oddness of "The Jessica Numbers"; the second half points toward some of the quieter, prettier stretches of Challengers and Together, their next two LPs, with a greater urgency than those generally have. The organ-driven "Falling Through Your Clothes" is folk-rock but eccentric and ghostly, "Three or Four" unexpectedly funky and frankly all but unrecognizable as the same group, "Stacked Crooked" a kind of monochrome, desperate Beatles revision, "Star Bodies" suggesting surf rock with the fussy intrusions of a Brian Wilson, and "Streets of Fire" (a Destroyer song revisited) downright tender. Even when the mood intentionally departs from sheer excitement, you can hear how hungry they all are -- not to prove themselves but to share what they have.
If you see the New Pornographers live, especially with the full lineup, the sensation is of watching a whole horde planting the flag at Iwo Jima: every individual playing their bit but all of them holding up a common object, their disparate nature gathering for these periodic moments of near-perfect unity, which can be a full song, a guitar solo (as Greil Marcus put it after seeing them once) that seems to be played by the whole band, or just Neko Case taking a line here and there. The word "unity" is more right than "perfection" because the latter isn't the point, despite the common cause there's still the palpable sense that these are humans holding something up, that it could crash down like a stage play with a technical gaffe but it never does. When they follow one another and hit upon these moments of galactic transcendence, magic occurs that's not really the same kind you get from any other kind of music, at least none that I'm aware of, and in contrast to other bands that "get there" from Big Star to Beulah, they are able to find it on-stage and organically.
"The Bones of an Idol," "The Bleeding Heart Show" and "Sing Me Spanish Techno" are probably not full-on live-in-the-studio performances; Newman likely edited and tweaked them to approach the ideal he had when he wrote them. But what's fascinating is that when they do play them, every bit of that thing is there; so what you are actually listening to is a real band. Not a supergroup, not a plastic tape-machine concoction or an artificial creation, but people really taking a deep dive. And these are among the most soaring moments in this band's, or anyone's catalog. There's no word for the feeling you get when the bridge of "Sing Me Spanish Techno" sweeps in, and you get to ride right along with it, and you can make out Case's and Newman's and Calder's voices individually but what you really hear is all of them; and this after the song seems to have already explored its boundaries most amiably; the effect is of a lonely voice, Newman's, finding its place in a collective. This attitude finds a similarly expressive outlet on the beautiful "Bones of an Idol," wherein it's Calder whose isolated depth of feeling discovers a world in which it fits.
Best of all, however, is "Bleeding Heart Show," whose only competition as the band's best song is probably the stunning title track of Challengers two years hence. Newman's words are gobbledygook that becomes a pressing matter because of the group's dedication to them; the comfort and beauty, peaks and valleys they find in the nuances of a song that they've expounded upon until it seems to echo across the universe suggest that you're hearing but not seeing the trailer to some movie that will change your life. Its hey-la-hey-la climax is as liberating as the "la-la-la" section restored to the complete version of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane," but this eventual catharsis is evidenced even in the hushed but still dramatic first moments of the song, as if we're meant to already know the release we're waiting for... which we will, the hundreds of subsequent times we all listen. "Bleeding Heart Show," and Twin Cinema taken together, turn the anti-populism of so much indie rock, even so much accessible indie rock, on its head because they uncover the heartbeat of all the geekery that seems so often to derail this kind of intricately constructed, hook-ridden pop music. At this moment it's as though whatever Newman writes, the others will somehow find out what he means and reveal it to us their way, whether he knows it himself or not.