One of the great additions to pop music in the last decade was the rise of the Canadian band The New Pornographers, a band out of Vancouver whose highest-profile members include “token” American Neko Case, Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, and as its main singer/songwriter, Carl Newman. Their first album Mass Romantic remains one of the highest-energy and hook-filled albums this music fan has ever experienced. Later albums have scaled down from that sugar high, becoming slightly more reflective in tone. And so it has been with Newman’s solo career as well.
The Slow Wonder, released in 2004, kept the high energy and the pop sheen with a more ‘home studio’ feel to it. 2008’s Get Guilty experimented with longer song forms and different moods with mixed results. And now, 2012’s Shut Down the Streets consciously aims for a modest and mellow feel overall. Its tonal consistency is one of the pleasures of Newman’s 3rd solo release. Its unassuming nature and attention to the quieter, more contemplative side of pop music will keep it from storming the charts, but as always, Newman’s music is always worth investigating.
Coincidentally or not in relation to its release date, the album has a very autumnal feel (especially the first half, where you might feel yourself outside amongst the fallen timber that surrounds Newman on the cover; it’s these opening songs that to me evoke an early 70s singer/songwriter vibe) . Electric guitars are used mainly as ornamentation, in favor of acoustic instruments and flavorful stuff such as the zither that nervously shivers throughout the Bossa Nova-ish “Do Your Own Time” and “Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns.” Street corner squeeze box adorns “Wasted English”. Banjo’s woven in on “Strings,” and a (synth?) clarinet pops up every now and again. Very homespun.
Some things have remained constant throughout New Pornographers and Newman’s solo work: First, Neko Case is in residence once again supplying background vocals. Second, Newman’s open-to-your-own-interpretation lyrics are still very much present. In “I’m Not TaIking,” I have an idea what “No one wants to weigh things down, but they tend to fly away, and rescue teams will look for days. I like the way things are. I say abandon the search for an author of small work” means, but the song’s all the more resonant for not spelling things out. And the tune has an expansive, unhurried way about it, full of misty stringlike figures, little effervescent electronic bubbles floating through, and a searching sort of instrumental refrain that I thought evoked the mood of the song very well.
The title “There’s Money in New Wave” might belie the idea that this is an insufferable Panic at the Disco-type stab at irreverence, but it’s probably the sweetest song on the album, its moderately-paced soft keyboard and strummed guitar beat delivering what sounds (to me, anyway) like musings of a future father surveying his half-developed neighborhood complex and looking ahead to when the houses become homes and his kids ask, what do you do, Daddy? (“Whistling through your life in ways that we would currently call science fiction / And I want to tell you / That there’s money in new wave / And I will deserve the blank stare / We won’t have to go over it again”). Both wry and charming, not an easy thing in pop music.
The back half skews a bit more traditionally, nodding a bit more towards uptempo numbers, though Side 1’s “Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns” probably comes closest to a New Pornographers song with its boppin’ beat and catchy chorus. And those chiming, ambient guitar chords in the middle of EOCT remind me of something else, but I’ll be damned if I can recall what it might be (I’ve got it; Van Dyke Parks. I too will deserve the blank stare). For me, in the context of this album, songs like “Hostages” and “Strings,” while accomplished, are just filler; I want to get back to that midtempo saunter through Newman’s backyard, and “The Troubadour” and “They Should Have Shut Down the Streets” round out this relatively brief set quite satisfyingly.
Not every album needs to swing for the fences, contain seven hit singles, or leave revelers exhausted on the dance floor after 79 minutes of sonic assault. And Shut Down the Streets is almost certainly too reflective for the “I’ve had a shit day / You’ve had a shit day” crowd. But some artists are lucky enough to be able to follow their muse in a different direction, and even though this may not break new ground for Newman and friends, but the plot he’s tending to is still pretty fertile.
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