In the late 1990s, Vancouver-based singer-guitarist Carl Newman was looking to put together a new band. His previous act, Zumpano, had fizzled in the middle of the decade, but he was still writing songs and looking for a group to play them. Newman recruited a bunch of other Vancouver musicians for his project, which became known as the New Pornographers. To hear Newman tell it, the recording sessions for the band were haphazard, but the songs were good. The lineup changed according to who was available, and Newman and bassist/producer John Collins played many of the instruments themselves.
Collins took it upon himself to call the band a “supergroup”, but the members were far from famous enough to fit that definition. Singer-songwriter Dan Bejar was just a handful of albums into his career recording as Destroyer and had yet to achieve the indie rock notoriety that would come for him in the 2000s. Similarly, vocalist Neko Case was still a year away from her third solo album and critical breakthrough, Blacklisted. The rest of the lineup had all done time in various Vancouver bands. Zumpano and drummer Kurt Dahle’s Limblifter had modest success on Canadian radio but made no impact outside that bubble.
The result of these sessions was the band’s debut album Mass Romantic, which was released in 2000 on Vancouver label Mint Records. The record failed to make the charts, even in Canada, but the music press noticed and helped build buzz around the band. The album landed in the top 20 on the annual Village Voice Pazz & Jop music critics’ poll and garnered the group a Juno Award in Canada for Best Alternative album. The New Pornographer made a video for the song, “Letter From an Occupant”, which garnered play on MTV2 (at that pre-YouTube point, the best way to see music videos in the US).
Listening again to the original version of Mass Romantic, it’s messier than anything the Pornographers did subsequently. It’s a very noisy album, with sounds piled on top of each other and sometimes blurring into a kind of audio mush. Fortunately, Newman and Bejar knew how to bring the hooks, so the melodies and earworms mostly rise above the sloppiness. The remastered 21st Anniversary Edition of the album (they missed the 20th due to COVID delays) subtly cleans up these audio issues. The individual instruments have more clarity. I noticed acoustic guitars, synth riffs, and basslines that were borderline subconscious to me on the original release.
As for the songs, it’s the same record it’s always been. At this point in the band, Newman’s philosophy was to do everything big. Every one of his songs has a massive sing-along chorus, and occasionally there are multiple different sing-along sections. This was also the only time Bejar was fully engaged in the project. He mostly showed up only for his own material on later records, which is how he got the moniker as the band’s Secret Member. It’s fabulous to hear him on background vocals throughout Mass Romantic, in addition to singing on his tracks.
When Newman’s songs work, they work amazingly well. “Mass Romantic” kicks off the album with simple chugging guitar chords, shuffling drums, and a catchy synth riff. Case’s distinctive full-bodied vocals make Newman’s typically oblique lyrics sound great. Newman shows up on backing vocals, and an interlude finds the band layering three or four voices together. The song also features a strange bridge-cum-outro that changes the feel but is catchy.
“My Slow Descent Into Alcoholism” is another winner. It features a thumping beat (with just a slight shuffle this time), chugging guitars, and a pounding piano. Case on backing vocals buttresses Newman’s leads in intriguing ways, especially when Newman goes into falsetto. Plus, it’s a lot of fun to sing along to “My-y-y, my slow descent / Into alcoholism it went / Something like this song!”
“The Body Says No” has a distinctive, buzzing sax part from Davidian Chorley, giving the song a thick low end. Between the rolling snare, organ, piano, sax, and three-part harmonies, not to mention bass and guitar, it’s a great example of the New Pornographers’ maximalist approach. The track goes from hook to hook to hook, though, making it one of the album’s big winners, especially when Newman sings, “Man, can you believe / She didn’t need meeeeee.”
On the other side of the coin, there are Newman’s partial successes. Generally, these tracks have a hook or two that work but don’t quite gel as a full song. “The Fake Headlines” has a great melodica/synth part and a strong chorus. “Make headlines / Believe them / Come back” with Newman on lead and Bejar harmonizing is excellent, but the rest of the track seems to be marking time waiting to get back to that refrain. “Mystery Hours” is the same way. It has a massive chorus with great Newman falsetto and excellent snare drumming from Fisher Rose (who made four of the tracks before Dahle joined up), but the verses only seem to exist to build to the refrain. The bridge also seems like kind of an afterthought.
Coming near the end of the album, “Centre for Holy Wars” and “The Mary Martin Show” both have their good points but don’t hit the heights of the record’s best tracks. “Holy Wars” has a distorted synth that I enjoy, and the Newman-Case harmonies on the chorus are strong. “Mary Martin” marks the first time Newman would sing about actors and backstage issues, and it would not be the last. Newman deploys his falsetto to good effect on the chorus. Davidian Chorley’s buzzing sax returns to cut through the other instruments and make an impact.
Bajar’s first song on the album, the mid-tempo “Jackie”, comes after four straight tracks of maxed-out Newman and feels like a breath of fresh air. The chorus of “Visualize success / But don’t believe your eyes” barely rises above the rest of the track the first time it appears. The second time it shows up, the music stops for emphasis, giving it a significant impact. The song ends with Bejar repeatedly shouting, “Jackie! Hey hey hey hey!”, with the repetition making it one of the album’s more memorable tracks.
“To Wild Homes” is Bejar matching Newman at his own game. Every instrument is in and at full volume for much of the track. Bejar and Case harmonize most of the song, Newman gets a moment to sing falsetto, and then the song ends with Newman doing his falsetto thing while Bejar and Case continue to harmonize. The Bejar track “Breakin’ the Law” closes the record on a milder note and is not a cover of the Judas Priest song. Most notably, the entire band is in on gang vocals to finish the song, giving it a different feel than the carefully layered harmonies elsewhere on the record.
Maybe the most distinctive Bejar track here is “Execution Day,” which is angular and weird. It has odd vocal harmonies, strange stops and starts, and unusual drumming from Rose. The vocal parts don’t exactly line up, and Rose’s fills don’t always come during musical breaks. The refrain, “On this day, which began as Execution Day / And sure enough, became Execution Day”, is repeated many, many times in a short three minutes.
Then there’s the single. “Letter From an Occupant” was the band putting their best foot forward from the album. It has Case on lead vocals, hooks for days, and doesn’t precisely follow a standard verse-chorus-verse pattern. The lyrics are typically oblique from Newman, but clearly, the song is about a breakup. After a catchy intro, the New Pornographers back off and let Case have the spotlight. She grabs the listener’s attention immediately, singing, “I’m told the eventual downfall / Is just a bill from the restaurant / You told me I could order the moon, babe / Just as long as you shoot what I want.”
The soaring chorus features Case belting out, “For the love of a God, you said / Not a letter from an occupant,” and Newman doubling her in falsetto. He then takes over singing wordless falsetto “Ooo ooo” with the band ably backing him up. The track also features an amazing break where Case repeats “Where have all sensations gone” with different inflections. Then there’s the noisy guitar solo, which is essentially just picking at full speed on a few different notes. Harmonized vocals follow, singing “The song, the song, the song that’s shaking me” several times until a voice quietly says, “Right here!”, bringing the band back to run through the chorus one more time.
“Letter” is a fantastic track, but Mass Romantic has enough going for it to make the whole record worthwhile. The lineup solidified after this album, and the New Pornographers became a much more focused ongoing project. Case and Bejar’s burgeoning careers made booking studio time and tours tricky, but Newman figured out ways to make it work. This 21st anniversary remaster is a good one to hear for anyone who has never dug into the band’s earliest work. For the New Pornographers’ biggest fans, improved audio clarity is enough to make this worth purchasing. Overall, though, the differences are probably not pronounced enough for most listeners to double-dip on the album.