If we’re to believe A.C. Newman’s take on his own work, then the last New Pornographers’ album, Challengers, was the mellowest record he can make. Therefore, his sophomore solo record, Get Guilty, is a move towards something more rock. But if you compare the two albums side by side, it isn’t a particular mellowness in one that sets them apart. What might have held Challengers back wasn’t that Newman turned down the guitars. In fact, a lot of the limbs the band went out on for that album yielded some pretty good stuff. But, at the same time, the album felt a little controlled. Newman’s meticulous recording was laid bare without a bunch of heavy guitar riffs, and it made the record feel like it was over-thought in places.
But Get Guilty feels much looser, and is a very inviting and energetic album for it. It isn’t a bunch of stadium-sized guitar riffs. It’s not rock music in that way. But it is a guitar-driven record, and, like Newman’s first solo album, it strikes a nice balance between his intricate arrangements and an immediate, opened-up sound.
At first listen, the album seems to pull away from Newman’s natural talent for melody. “There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve”, “Prophets”, and “Thunderbolts” all have a stop-and-go nature to their melodies. Newman delivers lines almost percussively, hitting the end of each one hard, and leaving a space before picking up the melody again. It is particular jarring in the strangely-timed “Thunderbolts”, which draws you in by coming at you a little askew. The first few listens might find you straining to tap along with the track, but once you settle into it, the refrain “They let you, they let you ride” becomes almost impossible to get out of your head.
The first half of the record is more heavily weighted with these stop-and-go songs, and “The Heartbreak Rides” is perhaps the most representative track. Besides being the longest song on the album, it is also the most intricate. Keyboards lilt in the background, vocal harmonies slide ghostly over the chorus, violins pulse through the verses. But behind it all, as in all these songs, Newman’s guitar keeps the song moving. It is in that way that Get Guilty is guitar-driven. Newman never insists the guitar rule the tracks, but the songs start and end with his strum. They would all fall apart without it. And the more you listen to these strange pop songs, their initially terse sound melts a little into something intricate and not just catchy, but lasting.
But while the first half of the record is a solid set of songs, it’s just a warm up for the brilliant second half. The one-two punch of the Donald Barthelme-referencing “The Palace at 4 A.M.” and “Changeling (Get Guilty)” are perhaps the finest songs Newman has ever written. The former is the closest Get Guilty comes to sounding like the New Pornographers. But the stripped-down sound and the single piano note that snaps over the acoustic guitar as Newman belts out each line makes it sound distinctly his. It also makes for a seamless lead into “Changeling (Get Guilty)”, where the piano takes the full lead. It’s a bouncy, eerily quiet pop number up until Newman conspiratorially mumbles “Get guilty, go, with the same cruel sense of humor that you came with”. At that, the song busts out into a full-blooded anthem as Newman and a chorus behind him shout “Change your mind!” It’s the biggest moment on the record, one of those great moments that can happen in pop songs, when you stop hearing the song and start physically feeling it.
And that feeling reverberates over the rest of the album. Even the mid-tempo “The Collected Works”, which makes the biggest move back to the gap-filled melodies from earlier in the record, has that same kinetic urgency, and there’s a tense energy, a close-to-bursting tone in Newman’s vocals. It’s a galvanizing song, and it seems to bring everyone—Newman, the other players, the listener—together for the communal closer “All My Days and All My Days Off”.
Like the New Pornographers’ “The Bleeding Heart Show”, the song builds to some brilliant vocal harmonies in the coda. It may be a simpler arrangement here, but the results are no less stunning. As the album fades out to Newman and company singing, you feel drawn in to the song, much closer to the record than when you began. And that feeling is what makes Get Guilty fantastic. Sure, it will draw you in with that first listen. It will announce itself immediately as a great piece of pop music. But it is that sixth or seventh listen, when the album starts revealing secrets to you, where the real juice is. It’s that depth that makes Newman one of the finest songwriters going today, and this new album could be his best work to date. Because Get Guilty isn’t a record that you just listen to, it’s an album you live in, an album you get to know, an album you’ll find hard to forget.
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