The New Pornographers
y yo, A.C. Newman—tell ‘em why you madd, son! This is your FOURTH ALBUM, yo. Your FOURTH ALBUM and the New Pornographers still don’t get treated like a “real” band. To clear things up, “real” bands only make new albums after two years of grueling tour schedules and intense soul searching. Dan Bejar and Neko Case call up Newman whenever they feel like making our mixtape-making lives easier, but if either needs to do laundry or hit up Six Flags, they can be easily replaced on the road. As such, it’s been hard for some to see their output as part of a trajectory as opposed to compartmentalized entities, since they’re the least substance-abusing band that could understandably be expected to break up after every album.
Mass Romantic felt like a glorious one-off, the feeling after Electric Version was “that was nice while it lasted,” and then after Twin Cinema, “how are they topping this?” Challengers is their first LP that feels like a realization of an artistic arc of sorts and sounds as if it’ll be listed next to the likes of Wincing the Night Away, Sky Blue Sky, and Easy Tiger in iPods of people you used to think were way cooler back when those artists released their early 21st-century masterstrokes.
Now, you’d have to be a pretty irredeemable asshole to dismiss Challengers based on the fact that repping New Pornographers doesn’t score you as many style points as it used to. Consequently, you’d have to be pretty unfamiliar with the rest of their work to find that straining against the inherent finality of their existence resulted in something other than their least pleasurable and most “pleasant” record. The New Pornographers concept would’ve fallen apart after the first note if they gave any indication that they were keeping a few in the chamber for their numerous outside interests, but while the melodic gifts of Mass Romantic and Twin Cinema were separate but equal (quantity vs. quality), they tip their hand on the first half of Challengers by trying to peak on the strength of studio tricks with mild degrees of difficulty.
“My Rights Versus Yours” gives some sort of indication that it might lead into true scrutability, but it never gets beyond an NPR-soundbite title, clip-clopping along until it tries to offer an ELO-style vocal effect as a climax worth building to. “All the Old Showstoppers” heavily recalls the pacing of “The Fake Headlines” but exchanges a carousel of big-top hooks for a couple of wholly predictable handfuls from the Brion Grab Bag.
Were I fighting with more constraints on space, I could really write this review by listing which older New Pornographers song a new one sounds a lot like, only less immediate. Even Newman’s trademark hairpin chord turns on “Mutiny, I Promised You” and “All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth” can be seen from two towns over, to say nothing of “Failsafe,” which is either a sketch version of “Four or Five” or a Monster-style guitar effect searching for a song. Either way. Dan Bejar could only wish for such relative triumph by association, as his contributions relegate him right back to third banana status. “Entering White Cecilia” and “Myriad Harbour” are erected on slack-wristed strumming, run-on travelogues that are either a parody of Fiery Furnaces or something even worse and listless. Newman has claimed that these are “typically sexual” Bejar songs. Make of that what you will.
And yet, these guys are still such pros that Challengers can be listened to front to back with minimal skipping. Challengers certainly gets tastier after you’ve chewed on it for a bit, and on an overly wistful record, Neko Case’s sad songs and waltzes (particularly the infidelity lament of the title track) become nice tent poles even if they’re stripped of any the typical power-pop fizz of her NP output. It’s even downright enjoyable, but as with the records I’ve brought up in the first paragraph (with the exception of Wincing the Night Away), if you’re the type that believes that new records still compete with older ones for your free time, this is something that you’ll play and enjoy for a couple months out of a sense of loyalty before wondering a couple years later how it’s aged.
For once, a clutch of New Pornographers songs, however well-constructed, just isn’t enough. Even if many of them recall the interstitial tracks of Twin Cinema that caused it to flow so smoothly, we still need highlights, or more substantial tweaks (even the six-and-a-half minute “Unguided” is just a good NP song that happens to be twice as long as the rest of them) or, gasp!, some sort of concrete lyrical takeaway. Because even when the latter was missing, it was acceptable because the New Pornographers were merely keeping secrets from us and a sense of mystery never hurts when the songs are so melodically and verbally seductive. Maybe that completely understandable calling-it-quits is imminent, because on Challengers, there’s a distinct sense of something missing, the work of people keeping secrets from each other.