Artist: The New Pornographers
Released: August 21st, 2007
Highlights: My Rights Versus Yours, All the Old Showstoppers, Myriad Harbor, Adventures in Solitude
There have been uncountable albums in the history of music whose making is strongly associated with certain mind-altering substances of varying degrees of legality and strength. “Exile on Main St.” was created by The Rolling Stones while the house in which it was recorded received constant shipments of heroin; “Be Here Now” is the sound of Oasis swimming in a pool of cocaine; “On the Beach” is part of a revered trilogy of records by Neil Young that were put together while he indulged heavily in alcohol; “The Libertines” was miraculously assembled as one of the band’s two leaders, Pete Doherty, struggled with crack addiction; acid was involved in the construction of dozens of psychedelic works, including The Beatles’ “Revolver”; The Velvet Underground’s “White Light / White Heat” walks hand in hand with amphetamine; and although marijuana had certainly been a part of Bob Marley’s diet for quite a while before 1978, perhaps no album of his is as intimately tied to the leaf as “Kaya”.
When they debuted in 2000 with the release of “Mass Romantic”, though, The New Pornographers broke into new territory as far as substance abuse goes by making a record that was fueled by obscene amounts of coffee. Truth be told, there are neither oral nor written reports that this was the case, but it is hard to explain the highly energetic, bombastic, hyperactive, and wordy power pop forged by the band via any other drug. Yes, there are plenty of other narcotics that would be able to produce the wild euphoria responsible for tracks like “Lettter From An Occupant”, which are bursting with a silly type of energy that would be downright embarrassing if it were not being backed by such magnificent hooks and captivating confidence. But a coffee overdose seems like the most plausible explanation for the band’s sound.
The reason for that is simply that it would be very weird to picture Carl Newman and his bandmates walking through the shady streets Lou Reed described in The Velvet Underground classic “I’m Waiting For The Man” only to be harassed by the cops, meet a suspicious drug-dealer, and eventually score some heroin. As their music proves, The New Pornographers sure enjoy some sweet and loud rock and roll, but they do not look like the kind of people who would drown in the dangerous cliches of the genre’s lifestyle. Their power pop carries such a strong undercurrent of indie and geeky mannerisms – as if they were early Elvis Costello with the anger replaced by calculated corniness – that one is more likely to find them inside a library, with members sneaking up to the espresso machine a few dozen times during the day in order to get their blood pumping for the upcoming gig.
In “Challengers”, however, it feels like either the band has abandoned their coffee addiction or someone changed the espresso formula due to budget concerns and ended up diluting the grains in too much water, because the explosiveness so blatant in its predecessors is mostly gone. In a way, it is a move that makes sense, because by 2007 The New Pornographers had already put out three albums – including the rightfully highly praised “Twin Cinema” – that exploded relentlessly from beginning to end. As such, a turn towards calmer waters is a stylistic shift that came just at the right time for the band. Yet, as it is bound to happen when groups alter their music, fans of their early work might find that the record is a bit too tame for their liking.
With that change, what The New Pornographers do is veer towards heavier folk leanings. To a point, the genre had always been a part of their sound, much thanks to how some of the band’s members – especially Neko Case and Dan Bejar – strongly dabble into folk in their careers away from The New Pornographers. But in “Challengers”, rather than sticking quietly to the background, folk comes more prominently to the surface, going as far as leading the way in most of the tracks. Because of that constitution, “Challengers” as a whole makes comparisons between The New Pornographers and their peers in indie geeky bombast, The Decemberists, not seem so absurd, with the notable difference that while the latter focus on relatively serious and meaningful storytelling, the former goes for senseless wordplay and mindless power pop fun.
The result is that, in “Challengers”, songs take a little longer to cook and arrive on the irresistible accessible hooks that are the ultimate weapon of The New Pornographers. If up until “Twin Cinema” tracks would blow out of the gate fully formed and dragging listeners for the ride, those of “Challengers” require some willingness and attention on the part of fans. “My Rights Versus Yours” starts sparse and acoustic, only hitting a defining electric chug and its central melodic line more than one minute into the proceedings; “All the Old Showstoppers” is quicker to explode, but its quieter verse reaffirms the notion that The New Pornographers are operating at a new pace here; and as the most extreme proof of that fresh approach to songwriting, the excellent “Unguided” teases so much at the arrival of a cathartic moment that the tune goes on for six minutes, which is almost a progressive rock threshold for a band that usually operates in the three-to-four-minute standard.
To boot and further drive home its folky inspirations, “Challengers” dares to occasionally turn its back on fun hooks to bet on introspective beauty instead. The title track is an almost fully acoustic number where Neko Case is left alone to sing and shine; “Failsafe” borrows the tremolo effect from The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” to coin a song that flirts with the more dancy vein of dream pop; “Adventures in Solitude” is half call and response harmonization between Case and Newman, and half orchestrated catharsis; and “The Spirit of Giving” concludes by ascending into the heavens with prayer and preaching, as if it were a classic gospel song.
Sometimes it feels the highs of “Challengers” are neither as astounding nor as frequent as those of its three predecessors and, allied with its diminished immediacy, that characteristic may cause some to look at the record as a lesser entry in a marvelous artistic run. However, as the bouncy, energetic, fun, and silly “Myriad Harbor” and “Mutiny, I Promise You” prove, “Challengers” still finds The New Pornographers at the peak of their power pop prowess. Sure, none of the tracks here are likely to make listeners feel like they have been hit by a wild high-speed train of fun; ironically, the only one of the record’s tracks that breaks this rule and rides a wave of bombast from beginning to end, “All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth”, is also the album’s weakest song. Yet, anyone that is patient enough to keep on waiting for the hooks to emerge will probably realize “Challengers” is a solid release by The New Pornographers that slightly shakes up their sound at the right moment.