On Challengers, the New Pornographers’ surprisingly docile fourth album, an engine idles. It’s the same engine as before, the one that mechanized three albums of blue-in-the-face pop frenzy (Mass Romantic, Electric Version, and Twin Cinema), but that once-ardent hum is now, for the majority of this record’s 50 minutes at least, a soft and gentle purr. The New Pornographers haven’t lost their taste for the sharp tang of compositional hijinks, nor have they put the kibosh on lyrical abstraction. It’s still easy to recognize this decade-old band as the one led by the off-kilter pop delicacies of A.C. Newman, augmented by the fractured post-modernism of Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, and afforded star power by Neko Case. For the first time, however, a New Pornographers album opens not with storming confidence, but with hesitation—hesitation that slowly builds and bubbles and plateaus, surrounded by the soft coo of background vocals and a Procol Harum organ.
That first song is “My Rights Versus Yours”, and it’s a lovely, lilting little thing with a tender lead vocal from Newman. Inside the narrative of limbo and instability, Newman sings of “flying the flags of new empires in rags”, an image that connects with our contemporary consciousness even if it’s not explicitly meant to, while the band plays on with uncharacteristic reserve. It’s a revealing forecast: “All the Old Showstoppers” follows suit, conspicuous bits of prog and cello bombast stuck in its otherwise discreet escalation, and Case gets ready for her close-up on the sedate, percussion-less title track. Better still is “Adventures in Solitude”, the album’s penultimate track that spins emotional dizziness out of melodic counterpoint (and features one of Newman’s most stirring bridges), and the waltz-time “Go Places”, which wraps the voices of Case and/or Kathryn Calder (it’s near impossible to tell the difference between the two since they sing so much alike) in compelling harmony. It’s in songs like these that the band flaunts its percolating strengths, tempo be damned.
I take absolutely no umbrage at the Vancouver collective’s change of pace—in fact, I wholeheartedly welcome a recalibration of style after three albums of high-velocity power-pop, especially in this day and age when indie bands fail to stray far from a preordained gimmick. The problem with Challengers, however, is not its decelerated speed—it’s that the songs aren’t uniformly strong. For every “Go Places” or “My Rights Versus Yours”, there’s an equal and opposite example of incomplete or recycled ideas. “All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth” churns like classic New Pornographers fare, but it’s all formula: the pounding eighth notes, the new wave electronic gurgles, the blueprint of Electric Version‘s “It’s Only Divine Right” traced anew. Likewise, “Failsafe”, featuring a gauzy lead vocal from Calder, hijacks the tremolo propulsion of Twin Cinema‘s “Three or Four” and leaves an underdeveloped song in its wake.
Bejar, on the other hand, typically curbs his ramblin’-indie-man methodology for the sake of his New Pornographers contributions (three songs per album); although he retains elements of his idiosyncratic style, this band demands a certain structural coherency that his Destroyer project achingly lacks. Still, even though Bejar’s hard-headed eccentricity makes him an easy target for criticism, it’s difficult not to note that he is more insufferable than usual on his Challengers songs: “Myriad Harbour” sounds like it hails from an indie rock musical, “Entering White Cecilia” dials up second-rate Dylan shtick while maintaining a flair for skewed-Broadway pomp, and “The Spirit of Giving”, with its pied pipes a-piping and feel-good (ironic or not) togetherness rubs a little too close to Polyphonic Spree territory.
The album’s biggest question mark is Newman’s six-minute “Unguided”, which, for a mini-epic, is utterly deniable. It sacrifices melody and lyrical meter for supposed introspection in its first half, stuffing words into spaces that don’t exist; in the second half, it guns for the floodgate-bursting sing-along magic of Twin Cinema‘s “The Bleeding Heart Show” but pans out as little more than pale imitation. In that moment, the New Pornographers shamelessly lobby for ambitious heroics, and it’s a reach that smacks of dilettantism. Of course, they’re far from dilettantes—they’re masters of this kind of expressive sweep, of juicy yet judicious hook and sinker, of blast-off wham-bam chorus—which, in turn, begs the question: why is this band suddenly trying so hard to manufacture that which has always been its bread and butter?