According to A.C. Newman, the New Pornographers latest release, In the Morse Code of Brake Lights, was not intended to be a concept album. However, he wrote, “I was about two-thirds of the way through the record when I began to notice that lyrically so much of it was pointing toward car songs.” That shows in several of the titles (i.e., “You’ll Need a Backseat Driver”, “Higher Beams”, Leather on the Seat”). More importantly, the 11 tracks on the album share that mindfulness one experiences when taking a long road trip. It’s that kind of subtle buzz that takes the edge even off the most troubling thoughts.
The album works its magic through a mix of repetition and surprise. The lyrics can be dark and disturbing; about war, death, fear, pain, and such. But the instrumental rhythms and flourishes temper the intellectual situation. It’s something like how being in love makes one perceive the world differently. The cut “Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile” obliquely refers to this phenomenon: “Yeah there’s room at the top / Pretty cheap for the view / But the vertigo drop put the skyline askew / Made me trip on a step‚ then I flew for a while.” Falling is falling, sure, but one can enjoy the trip. Life may suck (just watch the news), but these jaunts around the sun are all we have during our short existence on the planet.
Even when Newman says “fuck you for nothing” on the song “Higher Beams”, he croons his curses. This is a pop record full of lush instrumentation, vocal harmonies, and catchy beats. There’s a self-conscious beauty to the way songs unfold from simple beginnings to ornate structures that swirl and zip in ephemeral patterns. It’s Beatlesque in terms of Revolver or Rubber Soul. So when Neko Case and Newman begin to sing note for note together about road rage on “Leather on the Seat”, they soon are accompanied by an increasing variety of spunky strings, percussive noises, shadowy studio effects, and their voices split apart. Case does most of the heavy lifting as the song turns evolves from a litany of complaints to a declaration of acceptance about the way things are. It’s sweet without being cloying.
Case also takes the lead on “Colossus of Rhodes (although Newman is the main vocalist on the majority of the tracks) and matches the volume of the many other instrumental sounds combined in a foghorn-like blare that promises safety from the rocks. The original Colossus, one of the ten wonders of the ancient world, no longer exists but its magnificence can still be appreciated through the transference of memories. Someone saw it then and described it to others, and so we know what it looked like today.
Or as Case sings on the lyrics that make up the album’s title on “You’ll Need a Backseat Driver” one can find messages just by paying attention to what’s passed / past. You can travel but never arrive because you are already there. The koan-like adages suggest the meaning is no meaning and that the truth lies in the packaging, not the gift inside.
The New Pornographers latest studio album is such a present. It offers a myriad of listening pleasures on the surface, and the further one digs into its contents, the more one can find to enjoy until one concludes that the journey of discovery is its sole purpose. That may be a common trope, but rarely is it achieved so delightfully. In the Morse Code of Brake Lights reminds us that we may be skipping or slipping, but we all get there because we are already here.