Continue As a Guest is the first New Pornographers album in quite a while that I’d characterize as a grower. There are several ways this makes sense. They released Whiteout Conditions and In the Morse Code of Brake Lights in relatively quick succession in 2017 and 2019. Those records are each full of the immediately catchy, hook-laden power pop the New Pornographers are known for, but they also feature the group in transition. Drummer Joe Seiders had just taken over for longtime member Kurt Dahle, and part-time vocalist and songwriter Dan Bejar didn’t contribute to either LP. With founder AC Newman fully at the helm, the group leaned into their strengths.
Continue As a Guest, written during the pandemic, found Newman with more time than usual to put songs together and tinker. The result is a little more delicate and a little less hooky version of the New Pornographers. It’s the most reflective they’ve been since 2007’s underrated Challengers. This is not immediately apparent from the outset, however.
The album opens abruptly, with the full band kicking into “Really Really Light” as if the recording started a few seconds after they did. It’s a bright rocker, with jangling acoustic guitar, pulsing synths, and Newman and Kathryn Calder harmonizing, as they’ve done for years. “Really Really Light” chugs along until it pushes into the chorus. Newman shares in the press materials that the chorus is left over from a Brill Bruisers-era Bejar song that never saw the light of day. That chorus is one of Bejar’s prettiest and poppiest, as Calder comes to the fore to sing, “We sit around and talk about the weather / My heart just like a feather / Really, really light.”
The single “Pontius Pilate’s Home Movies” begins with a hint of what’s to come, as saxophonist Zach Djanikian layers in a brief, melancholy intro before bass and strumming acoustic guitar take over. This is the first appearance of Djanikian, who ends up being all over Continue As a Guest. Newman sings the verse solo while the New Pornographers sit in a sparse, tense space. Neko Case arrives to sing the chorus, with the sardonic lines, “Now you’re clearing the room / Just like Pontius Pilate / When he showed all his home movies / All of his friends yelling, ‘Pilate too soon!'” The song builds through a brief bridge that temporarily defuses the tension, a sax solo, and more. It never quite gets to the power pop heights that are the New Pornographers’ trademark, though, preferring to luxuriate in the tension.
This continues throughout much of Continue As a Guest. Newman’s melodies are as strong as ever, and the three main vocalists sound great. The songs are trying out different types of ideas, though. “Cat and Mouse with the Light” is a good feature for Case, but the music stays static, rolling along on simple percussion and steady bass and rhythm guitar while woodwinds flutter in the background. Similarly, “Continue as a Guest” rides a slow, chunky groove while a sax riff from Djanikian echoes through the background. It has a late-night 1980s blues-rock feel, but the melodic chorus, punctuated by Case and Calder harmonizing, grounds it with just enough New Pornographers style.
“Marie and the Undersea” opens with several layers of synths, reminiscent of the tone of Whiteout Conditions, but it quickly shifts into a more traditional New Pornographers track. Granted, it’s also a bit more sparsely arranged than is typical, and the saxophone is again there for added emphasis, but the prominent voices of Case and Calder carry it through. The chugging “Angelcover” is not as successful, built around an annoying little synth flute riff and relies a bit too heavily on Case repeating, “Why you would put your faith in a wild curse / Who knows / Who knows.”
There are a few other songs that sound more like typical New Pornographers material scattered throughout Continue As a Guest. “Last and Beautiful” uses a just noisy enough guitar riff in its Newman-sung verses, gets a bit prettier in its harmonized pre-chorus, and opens up into a big, layered refrain. “Firework in the Falling Snow”, with songwriting assistance from Speedy Ortiz’ Sadie Dupuis, is a lovely mid-tempo ballad that could’ve fit on any of their albums. The various singers pop in and out to assist Newman’s lead vocals, and Djanikian’s sax is a welcome addition.
Closer “Wish Automatic Suite” stretches past the five-minute mark, unusual for the generally succinct group. It begins quietly, with a few layers of synths and harmony vocals. The full band starts in after about a minute, but it doesn’t feel different enough to count as a separate section of a suite. After three minutes, though, there is a very clear transition. What had been a gently loping track with the chorus, “There are way too many eyes on the prize,” shifts in tempo and style. Much slower and melancholy, Newman and Case sing, “Meet me in the mirror maze / Tell me when you find the floor” while layers of wordless “Ahhs” back them up. The song effectively ends around the 4:30 mark, but synths very softly continue, and a fading Newman again begins to repeat the “mirror maze” refrain. It’s an unusual and slightly unnerving way to finish out Continue As a Guest, which fits in with the tinkery, off-kilter style of the record.
It took a good half-dozen listens for Continue As a Guest to click for me. Newman’s stylistic tinkering is enjoyable, but it’s not full of big hooks that will have listeners singing along immediately. His melodies are still excellent, as are all of his frontpeople. Eventually, those melodies won me over. Djanikian is an interesting addition to the group; he functions as sort of the “instrument of the moment”. It has a similar effect to their record Together, where Ben Kalb’s cello playing was prominently featured throughout the album. The pleasures of Continue As a Guest are worth putting in the extra work to enjoy, and after two decades of great music, Newman has earned the right to change up his style a bit.