The New Pornographers at this stage of their history have little to prove. With eight albums under their belt, their latest LP, Continue As a Guest, arrives after an eventful two-decade period of steady critical acclaim, recently capped by a 2021 tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of their debut Mass Romantic (2000) and the 15th anniversary of their third LP Twin Cinema (2005), unquestionably their most popular releases. This retrospective tour involved playing each album in its entirety across two nights. I saw them at Webster Hall in New York City for Mass Romantic, and the audience response was euphoric. What better band to break the pandemic lockdown-induced lull in concert going than the one that penned “Letter From an Occupant”?
Looking back, the New Pornographers came onto the scene during a millennium moment of the late 1990s and early 2000s as part of a new wave of bands that were notably larger with extra members and additional songwriters, resulting in music that sounded more densely layered without becoming ponderous in the process. Dispensing with the tired, hierarchical cliches of rock stardom, projects like Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, and the New Pornographers – all notably from Canada – imparted the idea that communal songwriting and performance were not only possible but decidedly more fun. Of the three, the New Pornographers have arguably been the most consistent by focusing on their music and avoiding the personal dramas that can plague bands at their career stage.
At the center has been vocalist and songwriter A. C. Newman. Along with Neko Case and Dan Bejar, he has crafted a panoramic avant-pop catalog that has blended the new wave/art rock sounds of mainstream acts like the B-52’s, the Cars, Blondie, and Elvis Costello, but with melodic citations that go deeper to reference lesser known, though cherished, indie power pop acts like the dB’s and Let’s Active. Cross-hatched with these two circles of a Venn diagram are the proto-punk/post-punk instincts of the Feelies, Half Japanese, the Modern Lovers, and Hunky Dory/Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie. You might even hear a melodic idea from Spandau Ballet or Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark sneak in.
Against this backdrop, the New Pornographers have consistently favored song structures built on strident rhythm guitars (no heroic solos, please); a poly-tempo, often danceable percussion section; and a sing-along interplay of male-female vocals that can relay or harmonize depending on the mood. The affecting vocal chemistry of Case and Newman is a signature feature of the band’s sound. All of which is to say that the foundations and output of the New Pornographers are multiple and seemingly encyclopedic. They can effortlessly take the innate catchiness of a 20-second TV commercial jingle and elevate it to charismatic art with intelligence.
For these reasons, Continue as a Guest marks something of a departure, with fewer rave-ups and partying down — no exuberant calls for Spanish techno on this LP. The pop maximalism of Twin Cinema has been traded for not quite rock minimalism but undeniably a sense of greater emotional complexity. The hooks are still there but are more sparingly distributed, allowing a stronger tonal atmosphere to settle into the background. This compositional approach is employed in the service of specific gestures and self-conscious affections that, from a lyrical standpoint, lean into sentiments of uncertainty and introspection. As a result, a reconsideration of classic pop music themes is put forward – the redemptive power of love, perhaps above all. Continue As a Guest implicitly suggests that such arguments are too simplistic and inadequate, especially as one ages.
The opening track, “Really Really Light”, captures this state of self-examination by depicting, melodically and lyrically, the inarticulate and vulnerable life moment you might have after something significant has happened, but you’re not sure what is coming next. “I am blurry on this here particular scene / More like a radio static; it’s a noise in between,” Newman expresses in the song’s opening lines. “How many lives have you pulled from the air / You’re not seeing ’em now, but they’re all more or less there, yeah.” His delivery is supported by backing vocals by Case, with the two harmonizing in the refrain against a single, well-positioned instrumental note. The accumulated effect as the song builds is chilling in a good way.
Newman, who goes by Carl offstage, spoke to PopMatters in a wide-ranging conversation about Continue as a Guest, including its origins, making, and, ultimately, its different meanings for him.
The Recording Process
“Nothing is typical,” Newman insists at the start of our conversation when asked about the recording process for Continue As a Guest or any of their preceding albums. “From the beginning up to now, we’ve always recorded where we can. We started out recording in our friend’s parents’ basement. And then we did a lot of recording in John’s [The New Pornographers’ multi-instrumentalist John Collins] apartment. Then we did a lot of recording at Rodney Graham’s art space.” Graham was an influential Vancouver visual artist and musician who passed away in 2022. “Once we got more popular, we moved into studios,” he continues, “but then we all moved around, so we’ve always been recording where we can.”
The pandemic unavoidably contributed to this longstanding makeshift approach for the New Pornographers. The initial recording of Continue As a Guest started at the end of 2020 – right after the first wave of the virus began to taper – with momentum building in early 2021. “I was in no rush because no one knew what was going on in the world,” Newman reflects. “I didn’t even know if there would be a music industry to go back to. Like, why are we rushing back? Why rush out this record that we might not be able to tour?”
This uncertainty was compounded by a new set of parameters encountered on a more practical level in the studio. “Creatively, I had to figure out how to be my own producer,” Newman explains. “I knew a little bit about it, but I just had to get deep into it and realize, ‘OK, you’re kind of on your own here.’ I realized I should have done it a long time ago because, like anything, if you have an idea about how something should be done, there is nothing better than just doing it yourself.” After a pause, he quickly adds, “Which isn’t to say I want to play everything, but I like being able to cobble together a version of the song and present it to the band and go, ‘Here, this is the vibe I’m thinking. Here is the skeletal vibe.'”
After sending a song demo out to the other band members and receiving their ideas, Newman would pick the viable ones. “They would send me back five or ten different ideas, knowing that’s how we’ve always worked, throwing out a bunch of ideas around and seeing what’s good,” he summarizes. At this collaborative level, the pandemic, in retrospect, changed very little.
“There has always been an element of us being a long-distance band. We’ve never been in the same place. Neko has never lived in the same town as us,” Newman reflects. “So, for other bands, recording during Covid might have been weirder, but for us, it felt like, ‘Well, we’ve done this. We know what it’s like.'”
Yet, if remote collaboration remained possible and essential to the band’s ethos, the logistics nevertheless posed a constant hassle. “The problem was that it was very hard for any of us to get together. Like the drum tracks we just did whenever we could,” Newman observes. “I would say, ‘Let’s just do some recording.’ I didn’t even know what I wanted to record, but let’s go into a studio for two days and spend two days recording drums, and I’ll figure out what it’s for later.”
This contingent approach impacted the construction and logic of the album throughout its long recording process, completed in 2022. “When we were mixing Continue as a Guest, I remember Joe [Seiders], our drummer wanting to come, and in the end, it was just too hard. It felt like a bad look,” Newman jokes. “We didn’t want to be the band that spread Covid because too many people were in the mixing room. Nobody wants to be that band.” However, these working conditions did reinforce a more flexible attitude toward recording and production. “We still do that,” he mentions. “We had a day off on tour last year, and it was the same thing. Let’s go into a studio and spend a day recording as much as we can get done because we’re here, and it’s hard to get together.”
Songwriting in the Time of Covid
When asked if the pandemic had a specific effect on his songwriting beyond the recording process, Newman quickly remarks, “It couldn’t help but sink in. I would have felt like shit if I pretended like nothing was going on. Not that many of the songs are particularly about it, but they are definitely informed by it.” As indicated earlier with “Really Really Light”, the sense of tentativeness informing a number of the album’s songs reflects this contextual influence, albeit indirectly by analogy or metaphor. The title track “Continue As a Guest”, for example, underlines a hard-won perception of human vulnerability through the exposure fame imparts, as expressed by lines like “All the odds are not in favor of a renaissance / It’s a brutal young economy you told me once.”
Are these thoughts about Covid? Not necessarily, but, as Newman relays, the conditions of the past few years sparked such regard for the transience of time and the limits of what a person can do musically and creatively over the course of a career.
The standout track “Cat and Mouse With the Light”, with lead vocals by Case, relocates such disarming feelings to the realm of personal relationships. “I don’t mean to be the last one standing, only meant to be the next best thing,” she laments. “You’re the last of my first mistakes left, and you can take that as a compliment.” Though framed and directed toward a lover, these lines could equally apply to a band reflecting on a mid-career moment and the apprehension that can ensue toward its fanbase after early acclaim. Underscoring this ambivalence, the song’s refrain, wrapped in Case’s hypnotic voice, consists of her repeatedly confessing, “It’s like I can’t stand that you love me, you love me, you love me.”
Newman acknowledges that the origins of some tracks run deeper into the past. “Some of the musical ideas predated the pandemic,” he insists. “It’s always been my way to go back and see if there is anything I haven’t finished if there is any idea I liked, and see if I can pursue it. There is often that element.” Though it is hard to be conclusive, tracks like “Last and Beautiful” and “Angelcover”, which have a strong 1980s vibe and I concede reminded me of LA synthpop band Animotion when I first listened to it, do possess elements of the older spirit of past albums.
Yet the imprint of the past several years is undoubtedly present. “For the most part, everything was written during the pandemic,” Newman reaffirms. “All the lyrics definitely were. Because it felt like even if I had lyrics written, I would have had to rewrite them. Because if it was mid-2020, all of a sudden, something you wrote in 2019 seems pretty meaningless. Who cares about your 2019 problems?”
As discussed earlier, many of the compositions on Continue As a Guest are simpler, being structured on the repetition of unassuming melodies and single ideas, unlike songs in the past that frequently shifted rhythmic gears and melodic pacing with unbridled elan. The word “mellow” and the New Pornographers don’t often go together. Yet restraint is a word that comes to mind with this LP. These new songs take their time. By doing so, an emotional tension builds as a result.
“Bottle Episodes” is an excellent example of this approach. It is among the loveliest songs the New Pornographers have ever put to tape. This song has a valedictory quality, possessing a golden hour glow that rides a nostalgic undertow. “We’re living in some famous shadows and don’t know if light will bend this way,” Newman croons at the start, conveying a mutual recognition of how futility and satisfaction can cohabitate at certain points in life. Rather than being opposing or incompatible feelings, Newman suggests that the co-existence of both sentiments at once captures an emotional truth, however conflicted.
“The song ‘Continue as a Guest’ really has a waving goodbye feel. It’s like, ‘You guys take care, I’m going to go live by myself until I die,'” Newman remarks, laughing when talking about the lyrics for the album. “Which is not exactly what I was thinking, but I was thinking about being a musician; I’ve been doing this for a long time … A lot of musicians are just trying to stay relevant. And you see pop stars who have dyed jet black hair and start wearing eyeliner, and it’s like, ‘I’m still young, I’m still young and relevant!’ And I thought, ‘God bless those people. I wish them well.’ You can dye your hair; I don’t want to. I’d rather just look exactly like myself.”
These thoughts on the title track contribute to what organically became the album’s concept as a whole. “This is a long way of saying I was just accepting the idea that I don’t have to be the cool indie rock star. I got to be that guy, I got to be a darling,” Newman ruminates. “I have had a nice career, and I thought, ‘Well, maybe it’s just cool to keep making music and not be concerned about things like my career or people’s perceptions of me or my relevance.’ Which is not to say I’m giving up. Just trying not to worry about it. And I think that’s why the theme, the title Continue as a Guest, kind of resonated with me when I clicked on it one day and thought, ‘Yeah, continue as a guest.'” He laughs, “One day, I clicked on it, and suddenly it took on cosmic overtones. It was like, ‘Yes, I do want to continue as a guest. A guest of society, a guest of the cosmos.'”
Building on these comments, I mention that there is a latent spiritual dimension to the album. Even if the lyrics address the social context of their composition in oblique ways, there is an attitude present on Continue as a Guest that life is contingent and ephemeral and that nothing is permanent. I ask him about this provisional ethos. “Although I am not an expert on Buddhism, there is a slightly Buddhist approach,” Newman responds. “I’m not saying, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to die’, but accepting that is the way of things. That is the path of every person, the path of everything that has ever lived. So maybe it’s OK.” After pausing, he adds, “I’m just one of zillions. I’m just one of zillions who realized I am not as young as I once was, realizing some things you can leave in the past, and that’s OK. The past doesn’t have to relive itself endlessly.”
Newman demurs when I push him further about whether there was a strong musical influence by other bands or artists on the album. “Not really, I really don’t think there was,” he says, laughing. “I’ve never been very good at that. At the beginning, when we made Mass Romantic, I know there were a few touchstones where I thought, ‘Let’s do that.’ On this one, not so much. I just started recording the songs and asked what works. It’s as simple as that.” When I repeat the question differently, he elaborates, “Only now can I look back. To answer that question, I would have to listen to our record a few times and go, ‘What was I trying to do here?’ In terms of singing, I think I was trying to do something a little more like Leonard Cohen. But even that was very vague. I think I was trying to be a bit more of a crooner and less strident, just being a little more laid back. Even that was in a general sense, though, singing in a different way.” Returning to his original stance, Newman insists once more, smiling at his friendly evasiveness, “Yeah, an album with no influences.”
A New Chapter with Merge Records
When the New Pornographers finished recording the album in early 2022, they faced another dilemma. “We were also between labels,” Newman comments. “We had to find a label.” Continue As a Guest found a place with Merge Records, and we had a chance to talk about being on a new label and what that meant for the New Pornographers, given Merge’s reputation for signing mid-career, even late-career, indie rock acts. Not only is Merge artist-friendly, but its roster provides a range of answers to the looming question of how to age as an indie rock band.
“That’s what I like about Merge,” Newman concurs. “I like that they’re home to bands like Redd Kross and Bob Mould. Redd Kross and Hüsker Dü were very important to a 19-year-old me. If I can join those ranks, join the ranks of these people who are in it for life, and you’ve got Mac and Laura. It’s the same thing. They’re in it for life. They want to put out music; they want to play music. And that’s inspiring to me.”
He further elaborates, “I like that Merge has shown they can sell tons of records through Arcade Fire, Spoon, and Neutral Milk Hotel. But I also like being on this label where it doesn’t matter. If we mutually respect one another, if I appreciate what they do and they appreciate us, then I’d like just to keep working with them and try and keep the business bullshit to a minimum.” He laughs again. “I like to make music, and you like to put out music, and hopefully, we can find a good groove there,” he concludes.
Back on Tour
Before our conversation ends, we discuss the North American tour for Continue As a Guest, which started this month. Newman discussed what it takes to prepare, who to expect on stage and the tour for Mass Romantic and Twin Cinema in 2021.
“After you release the record, you have to get together again and figure out how to be the Pornographers again,” Newman describes with a tone of pragmatism. “We rehearse, but it is very intensive. It’s like, we’re going to rehearse for four days for eight hours. Playing the new record will be the big thing, the rest we can handle.” While this approach may sound straightforward enough, it requires an element of remembering and finetuning the new material at hand, given the time lag that can occur between recording and touring. “There’s an insane lead time for records these days, from ten months to a year,” he says with a sense of astonishment. “If you get your record finished in March, it will probably come out next March. Which feels crazy.”
Nonetheless, the palpable chemistry of the New Pornographers endures as a stable element for the band to rely on. Furthermore, touring this year will likely be much easier than it has been in the recent past. “We started planning those shows before the pandemic,” Newman recalls when speaking of their retrospective tour for Mass Romantic and Twin Cinema. “We booked them in like January 2020, but then for obvious reasons, we moved them. It was just what the hell. I used to think I didn’t want to be that band that went back and played their old albums, but then I thought, why not?” He adds that the shows were also a matter of band consensus. “I remember thinking when the idea came up, the first person I went to was Bejar. I thought if he won’t do it, then let’s not do it,” Newman explains. “Then the next person I went to was Neko. If we can get Neko and Bejar, then we can get everyone else.”
I ask about Bejar, who has been with the New Pornographers off and on from the start but is also committed to other projects, especially his solo work under the moniker Destroyer. Bejar co-wrote “Really Really Light” for Continue as a Guest along with Newman, though Bejar is not formally part of the band for this outing.
“From the beginning, Dan was never in photos with us,” Newman reflects when I ask about this unusual band arrangement. “I think there was always the element that he can come and go as he pleases, you know? We’ve never had an acrimonious split; we’re pretty tight. On every record, I’ll call him up and say, ‘You got any songs for this album?’ I’ve known him for 27 years now. It goes back. It all goes back.”
When I mention the audience’s enthusiasm for Bejar’s surprise appearance at Webster Hall in New York when I saw them perform in 2021, Newman laughs. “It’s funny, I feel like when Dan is playing with the Pornographers, Dan has an effortless swagger that he sometimes keeps hidden,” Newman explains. “When he’s doing a Destroyer show, he’s the guy singing with his back to the audience. But when he comes out with us, you see a side of Dan that seems more like Dan to us. He seems more like a rock star. Because he’s like, ‘I’m just here to sing my six songs and then go backstage.'”
With these band dynamics in mind, I joke that there are comparisons to be made with Fleetwood Mac, a band that the New Pornographers have paid tribute to with a song contribution to the album Just Tell Me That You Want Me: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac (2012). “But different kinds of internal dramas!” Newman quickly insists, playing along. “Just remove one hundred percent of the sex stuff, and then maybe you’ve got something. There aren’t that many bands with three songwriters or just a lot of songwriters in the band.”
Similar to Fleetwood Mac, the New Pornographers also find themselves at a stage that many bands don’t reach and would envy. With its moments of pensive accounting and quiet radiance, Continue as a Guest marks a culmination of a kind in the group’s career, the full effects of which may not be fully grasped until a vantage point of hindsight is gained. The literate rock that Newman and his bandmates have long been committed to seems intent in this instance of pulling the trick of moving beyond the infatuations of first (and second) love to learn instead how to live with intermediate life circumstances, not of one’s choosing. It takes a certain confidence, acquired only through experience, for a band to execute a new set of emotional ideas and substantiate them musically. Continue as a Guest succeeds at this.
“Most of us don’t have the luxury of giving in,” Newman shares at the start of the album’s title track. “If you’re talking giving up, well, that’s another thing.” Newman is not giving up, nor is he giving in, and neither are the New Pornographers.
- The New Pornographers: Continue As a Guest (Album Review)
- The New Pornographers: Mass Romantic (21st Anniversary Reissue)
- The New Pornographers Find Messages 'In the Morse Code of Brake Lights'
- The New Pornographers: Challengers
- The New Pornographers: Together
- The New Pornographers: Electric Version