The New Pornographers: Continue As A Guest [Album Review]

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The New Pornographers
Continue As A Guest
Merge Records [2023]

For over two decades, The New Pornographers have been a reliable indie rock staple with a line-up that has varied from studio recordings to live shows on occasion. Formed in Vancouver by A.C. Newman, with Neko Case, a solo artist in her own right, and a crew of prominent players on the Canadian west coast city’s music scene, with Newman and Case and fellow vocalist and guitarist Dan Bejar handling the lion’s share of the writing and creative direction. The band is notorious for delivering quirky power pop songs with plenty of catchy hooks, edgy harmonies and lyrics that offer a unique take on life and romance. Bejar left to lead his own band, Destroyer, last appearing on 2014’s Brill Bruisers. Given that this ninth album was recorded during the pandemic, with the various members recording separately in different studios, most of the writing this time out came from Newman, who also produced.

Still focused by smart, power pop melodic hooks, Newman leans toward a denser, fuller, heavier sound that’s immediately noticeable on the opening track “Really Really Light,” a song that Newman developed around a chorus that Bejar had written, which he finished up writing the verses. A noisy guitar and drums rocker, here Newman is joined on the lead vocal harmonies by Katheryn Calder, who plays keyboards. Calder is Newman’s niece, and originally joined the band in 2005 when Case was pulled away from touring with the band to work on her solo career. They are joined by Todd Fancey on guitar, John Collins on bass, and drummer Joe Seiders. Newman and Case sing co-lead vocals and harmonies on most of the remaining tracks, her voice cutting through brightly on the chorus of “Pontius Pilate’s Home Movies,” about how the notorious Biblical anti-hero who clears the room showing his personal films, a dark funny idea on a record released just a week before Good Friday, the thing he’s best known for.

The title track’s title, Continue As A Guest, suggests the landscape Newman is mapping out, the world inside our computers where many of us found ourselves isolated as the pandemic required us schooling, working, even socializing over the internet. Since “the odds are not in favor of a renaissance/It’s a brutal young economy,” Case and Newman sing over the driving beat and the textured wasteland suggested by the saxophones of Zach Djanikian, they’re just looking for “some space to fall apart, with a long fade out.” It’s a darker, somewhat dystopian view of life, where one can imagine making a “last beautiful stand…” even if it sounds like white collar theft where you “go into one ear and out the other one/the good old smash and grab,” but perhaps it’s a Bonnie & Clyde thing, because “I don’t wanna go by myself, come with me.” Even with it’s bigger, bolder bassline, “Last and Beautiful” does sound a bit desperate.

Neko Case does sing solo lead on two of Newman’s compositions, “Cat and Mouse with the Light” has airy guitars and more sax as she sings a lyric that compares “inside trading” to “playing cat and mouse with a light,” but she’s bound to break your heart when she repeats that she “can’t stand the you love me, love me.” In “Marie and the Undersea,” Newman has her singing a melody reminiscent of a 50’s rock & roll girl group, through a noisy, urban landscape, but that sax again, and her voice cut through to describe a life that feels like it’s underwater, in a demanding world where “there’s only sleep and there’s never rest,” and even sadder “there is no room for imagination.”

In such a world, the best you can do is your “Bottle Episodes,” “here inside the TV glow,” because “when you’re dancing with the devil/You don’t get to pick the song they play.” But all is not hopeless, in “Angelcover,” where heavenly beings show up on the edge of your bed to sing a song that’s “wrecked and perfect/tuneless, with an energy an immortal could take too far.” Meanwhile they make the point that “Melody, melody/Ain’t got nothing at all on the/Delivery, delivery.” Thankfully, Newman and company have melody to spare, and their delivery always makes the best of the raw materials they’re working with.

In Newman’s one solo lead vocal, “Firework in the Falling Snow,” he suggest for all the esoteric references in his lyrics, he needs to “clean the heart off your sleeve/Careful of the mess that you leave.” Gratefully, his commitment to strong, catchy melodies overrules any mess he’s tempted to make. Here on the ten songs of Continue as a Guest, The New Pornographers benefit from the band’s solid musical instincts, the smart inclusion of Djanikian’s saxes, and the sense of balance Case’s and Calder’s vocals bring to these tracks. Things may be dark out there, but when the dawn comes it’s “Really Really Light,” and they have that working for them.

“Really Really Light” / “Pontius Pilate’s Home Movies” / “Cat And Mouse With The Light”

Robyn Hitchcock / Peter Bjorn & John / Jenny Lewis

In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights (2019) / Whiteout Conditions (2017) / Brill Bruisers (2014)

Official Website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Bandcamp | Merge Records

Brian Q. Newcomb

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