By Tom Lynch
There’s always a detour.
The road from point A to point B, wherever point B may be, is never straight, except maybe if you’re Avril Lavigne, who ain’t changing anytime soon. Vancouver indie-pop darlings The New Pornographers—a group that consists of Carl Newman, Neko Case and Dan Bejar, among others—have been branded a Canadian super-group over and over again during their career, a label they’ve repeatedly spoken out against. It doesn’t help, of course, that Newman and Case are established solo artists, and Bejar’s Destroyer is beloved in some circles as well. But, with age, even porno mellows.
“Twin Cinema,” The New Pornographer’s 2005 pop masterpiece, the band’s third album after its remarkable debut “Mass Romantic” and its slightly meandering follow-up “Electric Version,” all on Matador Records, helped the band achieve a larger audience due to rampant critical support, and proved, once again, the power of simple pop structures and genius songwriting. You don’t need experimentation when the sound’s this good, this contagiously giddy.
“Challengers,” the band’s new creation and fourth official full-length altogether, is not “Twin Cinema.” When I first listened, the disappointment on my face surely could’ve stopped traffic. What happened to all the candy? The Pornographers have gotten older, maybe wiser, maybe even a little more responsible with their songwriting. Slower, moodier songs dominate the surface—strings, flute and harp all make appearances—and the lyrics find Newman being pensive, more serious than usual, not making pleas for someone, anyone, to sing him Spanish techno. But…they call them “growers” for a reason, and while super-fans, which I am not, may embrace “Challengers” at first listen, I suspect most will come to appreciate it with time, as I most certainly have. Essential to this record are the female-vocal contributions, the Neko Case-led “Go Places” and “Challengers” and the Kathryn Calder-sung “Failsafe.” Bejar’s hip-hop-spiced “Myriad Harbor” is amusing, but the Case and Calder pieces are, easily, the most moving. Strangely, despite the actual sound, this is The New Pornographers’ most daring and ambitious attempt to chronicle the band’s place in the pop sphere, and, for this, it will be remembered for years to come.
“I kind of [saw] it in that direction, the direction it was heading in, just by the kind of songs I was writing, the ones I liked best, the songs that were mellower were the ones that I liked more,” Newman, who now lives in Brooklyn, says of the “Challengers” sound. “I think it’s because we’ve had so many records where I think we’re known for being a band that writes these upbeat pop songs, and after a while I started thinking that that’s just too easy. You can put out an entire album [of that], but I would feel like I was copping out. I’d rather have people pissed off at us for changing than be pissed off at us for not changing.”
Newman says the change of pace was essential. “It’s always a weird area, getting into the fourth album. I’ve never been this deep into a band before, where you don’t know where to go,” he says. “But what else can you do as a band? You don’t really want to repeat yourself…You go into a record and you don’t know what’s gonna come out. Sometimes you’re surprised—obviously you push it, actively push it into certain directions by the choices you make. In the end, I guess this is a mellower record, but those seemed like the best songs. If some of the outtakes [were on the record], people might’ve not said this is a mellow record. But these were the group of songs that felt right to me.”
He says that, as a songwriter, he’s still learning. “I always feel like I’m learning,” he says. “I always feel like each record is better than the one before, regardless of what other people might think. It’s just a learning process along the way. I’m getting closer to the kind of songwriter I want to be.” Which is what? “I don’t know,” he says. “A combination of all my favorite songwriters, a composite of about two hundred people.” (When pressed on influences, he mentions Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell,” and then says, “I should keep my influences to a minimum, if I know what’s good for me.”)
Newman also says that he’s a slow writer. “I wish I was one of those people that could sit down and just write a song in one night. Songs are always slowly taking form. I always have a ton of songs that aren’t finished. When people ask me if I got any new songs, I either say I have zero or fifty.”
Newman says he’s working on a new solo record—the follow-up to his stellar “The Slow Wonder”—and there’s been a recent development in his personal life…he got married. “It’s going really great,” he says. “It’s, uh, you know. I’ve got a ring now. I’m gonna use it as a slide. I wonder if anyone has ever done that.”
The New Pornographers play October 18 at 19 at Metro, 3730 North Clark, (773)549-0203, at 8pm.