Tweaking the nose of expectation and laughing in the face of probability, the New Pornographers continue to improve with each new release. Electric Version added depth and consistency to the brilliant potential of Mass Romantic. Twin Cinema introduced an occasional sense of melancholy and a painstakingly precise production to the band’s evolving prog-rock-bubblegum sound and was widely acclaimed as the best record of 2005. Now, with Challengers, Carl Newman and his colleagues have defied the odds once more,
On Challengers, the New Pornographers have finally toned their helter-skelter musical joy-ride down to a level where it will no longer induce pop epilepsy in susceptible listeners. But restraint is probably the wrong word to use, because the New Pornographers remain a proudly kitchen-sink proposition. Their motto is still “All this and more”. Challengers is simply a less hasty record than its predecessors. Resisting the temptation to knock the listener off his feet for a quickie or five, the band’s fourth album instead allows its songs ample time and space for seduction.
Opener “My Rights Versus Yours” seems almost like a last look back to Twin Cinema, yet it still rings an immediate change. Where earlier records were pitched firmly to the high end of the register, Challengers brings a less shrill, fuller sound and introduces a whole new range of textures. Propelled by a half-hidden rhythm redolent of the ’70s extravagances of Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne, “My Rights Versus Yours” then adds layers of Lynne’s beloved vocoder vocals to its extended repeat-to-fade just to make sure you get the reference. While “My Rights Versus Yours” is hardly the irresistible colpo di fulmine that’s opened each of the previous albums, it’s still the perfect start for the best of the bunch, setting out a largely familiar red carpet for the following three songs, which together form a supreme sequence of varied and marvellous pop moments.
“All The Old Showstoppers” is a perfect example of the New Pornographers’ seemingly endless ability to build organic pop architecture with layer upon layer of wit, invention, and quite gorgeous hooks and harmonies. A subdued, repeating chime, much like a submarine’s sonar, leads from “My Rights Versus Yours” into “All the Old Showstoppers” and persists throughout. A matched pair of cyclical patterns, one from a guitar, the other presumably not, entwine loosely around each other, and the opening lyric immediately recalls Twin Cinema‘s near-perfect “The Jessica Numbers”. The first line is sung by Newman alone. The second sees a female voice join him in harmony. And then at the end of the first verse, a resounding string section takes us back once more to the Birmingham sound of Wood and Lynne, while also providing a bridge for the entry of the drums and bass. As the song proceeds, the sound becomes increasingly rich as ingredient after ingredient is added to the mix. A far cry from the frantic sci-fi pop of yesteryear, “All the Old Showstoppers” has an earthy exhuberance that is even more appealing.
The first three New Pornographers albums all opened with their title track. Challengers, however, keeps its powder dry. Neko Case’s voice is at its best and beautifully produced wherever she appears on this album, but on the minor-key masterpiece “Challengers” she’s both beguiling and stunning. While the half-hidden O-la of “Challengers” somehow echoes the rampant Hey-la of “The Bleeding Heart Show”, this new song is infinitely deeper and more soulful than the opening minutes of that Twin Cinema standout.
Photo: Steven Dewall
Even if Dan “Destroyer” Bejar’s “Myriad Harbour” can be legitimately described as the offspring of mclusky’s “She Will Only Bring You Happiness” and the Pixies’ “I Bleed”, it’s still much, much more than that. It’s an eccentric, enchanting, deeply funny and apparently aimless stroll through the architecture and neighbourhoods of New York City. And the moment when I first heard Bejar drawl “I walked into the local record store and asked for an American music anthology, it sounds fun,” was absolutely Thee Moment when I fell deeply and irrevocably in love with Challengers.
As the string section sweeps “Myriad Harbour” to a close, “All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth” tenses itself, preparing to explode out of the blocks. A hurtling, keyboard-driven romp, “All the Things” is concise, familiar, and enjoyable, and yet in this company it also sounds very much like a throwback to the early days of Electric Version and Mass Romantic. Challengers, it now seems clear, is what the New Pornographers always wanted to sound like. It just took them four albums to get here.
As if to emphasize this point, songs as fine and varied as “Failsafe”, “Unguided”, “Go Places”, and “Adventures in Solitude” continue to lead us further and further from the old familiar path. Kathryn Calder’s lead vocals on “Failsafe” wrap themselves beautifully around a resting heartbeat provided by a resonant tremolo guitar — the best use of this device since Johnny Marr deployed it on the flip-side of “William, It Was Really Nothing”. The almost mournful “Go Places” showcases another irresistible performance from Neko Case, who sounds positively prim, proper, and (whisper it) almost English in places. “Adventures in Solitude” combines Newman and Calder in an effortlessly soulful piece that rises to a cathartic ’60s crescendo. And “Unguided” is Newman’s centre-piece, at once deeply personal and emotional, and yet recalling once more the grandiose arrangements of Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne, and, inevitably, George Martin.
A deliberate and very significant advance on its predecessors, Challengers still retains the very best of the New Pornographers’ past. Listen carefully and you can hear elements of songs such as “From Blown Speakers”, “Ballad of a Comeback Kid”, and “The Body Says No” lurking within this exceptional record. “Mutiny, I Promise You”, for example, is essentially a distillation of everything that was good about Electric Version. Less insistently percussive and relentlessly dramatic than its sources, it’s a majestic and heroic pop song of the very highest quality. And entirely typical of Challengers.
More cinematic than Twin Cinema, more cohesive than any other record released this year, Challengers is so very good it almost compels you to think in the cliches of music criticism. And far be it for me to resist. Challengers is a perfect uber-pop album. Underneath its underlying tones and dizzy melodies, next to its intelligent guitars, you’ll find frailty, beauty, sex as art, and — quite probably — something or other about dolphins. Undoubtedly the best record of 2007.