A.C. Newman looks for refuge from a chaotic world on the latest New Pornographers release, which includes a long-distance collaboration with Sadie Dupuis from Speedy Ortiz.
What began as a splinter group, collective side project, or indie supergroup, take your pick, eventually morphed into an ongoing standalone band, and one of Canada’s best, The New Pornographers. As Canadians they are a few steps closer to the lineage of British rock and folk than their neighbours to the south, a sort of Hollies meet Eno and Magnetic Fields with Mike Nesmith helping in the shadows. The group now consists of bandleader and main songwriter A.C. Newman (aka Carl Newman), Neko Case, Kathryn Calder, John Collins, Todd Fancey and Joe Seiders.
The New Pornographers’ ninth album ‘Continue As Guest’ captures a feeling of disorientation and longing for solace. It is more guitar-oriented than some of their previous electronica-friendly albums. Somehow Newman makes it possible to be a non-normie eccentric who also makes exquisite, polished pop music lacking the vacuity one would expect in such perfectionist creations.
On the sad title track Newman and Case search for solace in anonymity and a quiet, simple life (“out on the plain with some space to fall apart / With a long fadeout”). This isolation is self-chosen and self-protective, not the kind imposed by a worldwide pandemic, which was happening while Newman worked on these songs. He has rightly expressed concern that the lyrics might be misread as plans to annihilate himself, but the mournful music might be more to blame than the lyrics for that misinterpretation.
‘Really Really Light,’ the first single from the album is one of the repurposed leftover songs co-written by former member Dan Bejar (of Destroyer fame). It was originally from sessions for their 2014 album ‘Brill Bruisers.’ It is a disjointed, fuzzy blast of an album opener.
‘Angelcover,’ the second single, is another unused Bejar collaboration from their 2019 album ‘The Morse Code Of Brake Lights.’ It was written after a fever dream in which an angel, while sitting on Newman’s bed, explained to him how people listen to music. With the classic glam sound of the song, presumably the angel was wearing glittery platform boots. ‘Last And Beautiful’ sounds like a lost ’90s Steve Albini production.
The vocal chemistry between Newman and Case is an absolute treat. I don’t understand why she gets flak for being too opaque and emotionally cold when neither of those criticisms are true. She can sound bored and deadpan, but there’s a dark dissatisfaction brewing underneath that ennui (‘Pontius Pilate’s Home Movies,’ ‘Cat And Mouse With The Light’).
Newman’s collaboration with Sad13’s and Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis, ‘Fireworks In The Falling Snow’ is misty and atmospheric, with saxophone by Zach Djanikian, who shows up intermittently through the album. The song’s arrangements may have been better served with more contributions from keyboardist and vocalist Kathryn Calder, who is also one-half of the fabulous duo Frontperson and obviously a talented songwriter.
The New Pornographers set the bar high for themselves from their 2000 debut album ‘Mass Romantic’ on, but ‘Continue As A Guest’ goes well beyond reaching that expectation.