Trying to pinpoint the genius of the New Pornographers is a bit of a fool’s errand. The problem is that they do so many things exceptionally well, from crafting big hooks to winding through impossible melodies to cloaking meaning in clever wordplay. Most bands would kill to excel in just one of these areas, but the New Pornographers consistently combine all of them with an almost irritating nonchalance.
With just about every member of the band simultaneously maintaining a successful solo career or side project, it’s easy to see how so many ideas — and good ones, at that — end up in the New Pornographers’ songs. Perhaps, then, the real genius of the Pornographers is their ability to be both bewildering and catchy. Even though their albums are crammed with eccentric melodies, unexpected turns in songs, and a cumbersome sharing of duties from one song to the next, somehow their music never collapses under its own ambitious weight. What’s more, though their albums are growers, even the first listen reveals the band’s charms.
This has never been more apparent than on Together, the follow-up to 2007’s Challengers. Whereas that album was an uncharacteristic mellow detour in the Pornographers’ discography, Together is an unabashed return to the big, bold, and brainy power-pop of Twin Cinema, the 2005 LP that won critical acclaim from all corners and cemented the band’s reputation as a rare supergroup that actually deserves the title. As on previous albums, the creative frenzy is anchored by three forces: the Pet Sounds-inspired sunshine of de facto leader A.C. Newman, the detached vocal Bowie-isms of Dan Bejar, and the enchanting vocals of Neko Case. The push and pull of these three forces give the Pornographers their unique sound, at times colliding into one another unexpectedly, at other times effortlessly working in unison, at other times miraculously doing both.
Viewed from that perspective, Together couldn’t be more aptly titled, for it’s full of moments when those distinct influences interact in wonderfully odd ways. In “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk”, for example, Newman cautiously lays a melody over a stuttering chord progression before the song’s chamber pop explodes into ‘70s guitar rock, with Case’s ethereal voice lifting the song into the atmosphere before it falls back down into Newman’s meticulous verses. If, perhaps, George Martin would have produced Cheap Trick, the result might very well have sounded like this.
Of course, such exhilarating moments are what you get with a band armed with so many weapons. Thankfully, one of those weapons is used to fuller effect than on previous New Pornographers albums. While it seems like a no-brainer to put Neko Case’s inimitable voice in every song, she’s been underused on previous albums, often relegated to supporting vocal roles that can seem like afterthoughts. Perhaps this has been due to the band members’ competing projects, but it’s a shame regardless. Here, Case’s presence is heard throughout the entire album. On “Crash Years”, another power pop gem that combines everything from strings to jangly guitar to whistling, her urgent, ethereal wail propels the track from start to finish. On other tracks, Case comes in to take over the chorus, such as on “Your Hands (Together)”, a blistering rocker that absolutely sears during her parts. The best moments, though, are when Case uses her voice to punctuate Newman’s, coming in slightly behind his to give the song tension, such as in the verses of “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk”.
Not to be outdone, Dan Bejar offers up his share of classic moments, many of them quite unexpected. “Daughter of Sorrow”, for example, can only be described as David Bowie fronting Stereolab, with Bejar’s eerie, outer-space croon giving way to effervescent background cooing. It’s an odd pairing, no doubt, but one of the best moments on the album. And then there’s “Silver Jenny Dollar”, another Bejar-led track that is blissfully bouncy pop, the perfect backdrop to a summer drive.
To say that Together is the New Pornographers’ best album yet would be a brave statement — but only because the band’s body of work is so obscenely strong. Moreover, to make such arguments is a waste of time. The bottom line is this: Together is another masterstroke from the New Pornographers, one of those rare albums that reminds even the most jaded ear of the joys of pop music.