All Shook Down
It inevitably happens. You get old. Your body starts to fail you. You suffer through the death of parents. You celebrate and possibly curse the arrival of children. In short, you become a father (or a mother), while you bury yours. You trade in wild, youthful abandon for aged, restrained wisdom. Things change. You no longer head out to the club and spend an entire night there. If you do make it out, you might spend your time looking at your watch, needing to be back home to responsibilities at an appointed hour. Things are never quite the same as they once were. Are things better? In some ways, yes. In some ways, no. Things are just ... different. But things change. It inevitably happens.
Not to navel-gaze too deeply here, but I write these words a few days after my 37th birthday, and I’m starting to feel the years beneath me. A few years ago, I discovered that I was type 2 diabetic, due to the fact that I kind of let my weight get the best of me. I now train two nights a week to reduce my weight and reverse the damage that my disease has done to my body. I’ve also stopped smoking three months ago. The reason? Eight fillings during the span of a week and an emergency root canal led me to believe that my cigarette habit was leading me down the slippery slope to gum disease. So, yes, I just woke up a few days ago and really realized that I am, indeed, now in the ranks of the middle-aged: almost halfway to the point in life where my grandfather on my father’s side kicked the bucket at 75. And in order to approach the third and most recent solo album from New Pornographer member A.C. “Carl” Newman, you might just have to have to be middle-aged to really sink your teeth into the laidback beauty of Shut Down the Streets. It’s a record that kind of reminds me a bit of the Replacements’ swan song All Shook Down – an album that was, in part, quiet, reserved, mature and poignant. Some people don’t like it and prefer the stellar run of mid-career albums from the group where they were mixing their punky roots with classic rock abandon. I can’t say that I’m not one of them from time to time. But there’s some good stuff on All Shook Down that’s worth revisiting. It might not be the hallmark of a group in their prime – in fact, it’s arguably more of a Paul Westerberg solo album considering that his bandmates didn’t really play on it, or so the story goes. It’s certainly the record that sticks out a bit like a sore thumb in the ‘Mats catalogue because it’s just so damn ... low-key – at least, in parts. But there’s still some decent songwriting there. It’s oddball, but it’s quite mature.
Well, it would seem that Newman has had a bit of growing up to do in the past couple of years. Much has been made of the fact that Shut Down the Streets was made by a now 44-year-old who wrote the album in the space between burying his mother in 2010 and the looming birth of his infant son earlier this year. Much has been made of the fact that much of Newman’s gibberish has been dialled down in favor of more direct and confessional lyrics as a result. Much has been made of the fact that Newman’s bandmate Neko Case provides backing vocals throughout the record. But what people are going to remember about this album, really, is that it is the most laid-back, monochromatic platter in Newman’s discography, solo or otherwise. The accompanying press release for the record begins with a defense of “dad rock” – the pejorative term coined by Pitchfork writer Rob Mitchum to describe Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky. If you put the term “dad rock” into Wikipedia’s search engine, you get redirected to the entry on “classic rock”, which seems to me to be a bit of a misnomer. “Dad rock” is somewhat softer or more reserved, the Eagles doing “Take It To the Limit” or anything in the latter Steely Dan catalogue, and it’s clear that Newman has made what could be essentially the ultimate “dad rock” record. Inspired by sensitive ‘70s singer-songwriter types such as Jim Croce and Gerry Rafferty, there are no peppy, upbeat numbers here in the vein of “Miracle Drug” from 2004’s incendiary The Slow Wonder. Instead, the feeling of Shut Down the Streets is one of floating and just ... existing. But barely. There’s a touching softness and tenderness that unravels throughout the disc, and one’s first impression might be to be taken aback. Is this the A.C. Newman we all know and love?
The rewards of Shut Down the Streets are subtle and long-reaching, though. I’ve listened to this album about eight times, just to get my bearings on it, and I’m no closer to unravelling what makes each song distinct and individualistic from one another than I was the first time I heard it. The album has, however, grown on me the more I listen to it – though I do suppose that if you listen to anything long enough, it gradually becomes agreeable and inviting. If anything, this is an LP that is meant to be played from start to finish, and just be experienced. There are little glimmers of energy that try to bubble their way to the surface – the way the very start of “I’m Not Talking” begins as though it were being played in a music box before expanding and opening up into a full bodied song, and that’s not to speak of individual moments such as the cascading lush background keyboards of “You Could Get Lost”, the jaunty banjo of “Strings”, and the unwound zither of “Do Your Own Time”. I could paint a picture of subtlety with the way certain instruments and snatches of song kind of creep up on you. And despite the fact that Newman is making sense in his lyrics for perhaps the first time here, I’m reluctant to point to anything that stands out – the words feel as though as they’re just part of the instrumentation. Still, Shut Down the Streets feels more of a piece with a clear start and a propulsive trajectory, though, to be honest, there’s not much of a finish – the title track feels as though it wants to continue on into infinity, but then it just stops and we’re left holding the bag. And even though the album is overarching in its consistency, there are lags – “Money In New Wave” is kind of the paint-by-numbers piece that Newman could have written in his sleep. And maybe he did.
Shut Down the Streets is a record that is at once familiar – Newman’s falsetto is intact in bits and pieces, and there is the presence of Case, after all – and one that ventures out into new-ish, more lullaby territory. Anyone expecting full-on power pop of the sort Carl has been known for is going to be, alas, sorely disappointed. The Slow Wonder this isn’t. Shut Down the Streets essentially sees Newman acting his age to a degree, though you could say this is part of a gradual descent into quieter music that began with the New Pornographers’ Challengers, and is just the culmination of a period that has arced and become more pronounced during the past few years. It’s an album that has been shaped by the artist’s environment, and seeks to do little but be a mirror, a diary, of a mid-life that’s been lived. That will either turn your crank, or turn you right off, and whether this hits your joy button or not may be correlated to the age of you, the listener. Shut Down the Streets is not a record for the young – it is wisdom wrapped around the indelible songwriting skills of one of Canada’s most distinctive musicians. In any event, one thing is for sure. When I was in the dentist’s chair a few months ago getting that root canal, Shut Down the Streets is the sort of album I would have wanted played in the background as a kind of anesthetic, a balm for the pain I had to endure. Of not only a bad tooth. Of inevitably growing old.