Fire Note Says: The Carl Newman led New Pornographers, take on the world grim reality with bright, bold and aggressive pop song energy that rocks, with strings.
Album Review: It seems the unspoken rule of thumb for songs by The New Pornographers’ principal songwriter, Carl Newman has been that the bleaker the lyrical worldview, the brighter and more eloquent the power-pop approach they bring to the music. Here on their 8th studio album, the “musical collective” that benefits from the stellar vocal presence of Neko Case, Kathryn Calder, and latest addition Simi Stone. On the band’s earlier album’s Newman’s poppiest inclinations were often balanced by the funkier contributions of singer/songwriter Dan Bejar, who was noticeably absent on 2017’s Whiteout Conditions, and appears to have left the band permanently at this point. For Case, singing in New Pornographers has to feel like a busman’s holiday, after writing and co-producing on her more intimate and personal solo outings, like last year’s Hell-On, which earned her slots on lots of year-end best-of lists. Thankfully here, Newman’s strong songcraft and the band’s catchy musicality, no doubt aided by Case’s vocals, and the fun orchestrated strings that are spread liberally throughout the disc’s 11 tracks, find the New Pornographers still at the top of their form.
While Newman continues to channel the anxiety and uncertainty of our current political climate, but here he’s captivated by the healing potential of a loving relationship, or hoping to redeem that love’s failure, and the inexplicably ever-present image of the automobile which show up start to finish. Like the opener, “You’ll Need a Backseat Driver,” which’s lyric provides the album’s title, and the closing “Leather On the Seat.” In the quieter, more solemn “Higher Beams,” starts with the somewhat passive aggressive “thank you for nothing,” for living “deep in the culture of fear/we all hate living here,” before getting straight to the point with the more direct, “fuck you for nothing.”
But as dark as the lyrics can get, Newman and Case and company have provided more than enough bright pop song melodies to lighten the load. Take the first single “Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile,” with its hand clap rhythm, a bass-line that bubbles up from below, and the “You got what you want, be full” sing-along chorus, which is so catchy you barely notice the inevitable pull of vertigo. “The Surprise Knock” delivers that bouncy Beach Boy wall of vocals that makes New Pornographers stand out in the crowd, that leave you mesmerized until the guitars gallop to suggest these guys can rock too.
There’s a bittersweet sad ballad with Newman offering up the catchy lyrical play of “You Won’t Need Those Where You’re Going” over a quiet piano. But the general rule here is a big, bold pop sound, and lots of strings. On “Dreamlike And On the Rush,” the hand-clap baroque beat is overwhelmed by swells from the orchestra’s violins, saccharin sweet as we come to terms with the all to grim reality. “Need Some Giants,” the one co-write with Bejar, thrives on a driving piano, a call & response chorus, and that big wall of sound of strings competing with guitars, while the rocker “Colossus of Rhodes” gallops with New Pornographers delivering what they can only do, and do best. The lyrics suggest pessimism up to a point (“If the party’s over, it’s not too late to kick you out” and “don’t put no flowers on this grave/we think the patient can be saved”), but mostly the positivity is carried in Case’s lead vocal, and the band busy being the New Pornographers, which is always a good thing.
Key Tracks: “Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile” / “The Surprise Knock” / “Colossus of Rhodes”
Artists With Similar Fire: Jenny Lewis / Peter Bjorn & John / The Shins
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb