New Pornographers

By 2000, American fans of indie music had become well accustomed to great acts bussed in from Canada. From the emphatic brilliance of the criminally underrated Sloan to the majestic lo-fi fuzz rock folk of Eric’s Trip, the Northern Invasion that now buffets our borders was already well on course. Still practically no one was prepared for Mass Romantic, the debut release from The New Pornographers — a brilliant, buzzing, caterwauling instant classic, which still serves as one of the greatest and most immediate power pop albums ever rendered. Originally released by the tiny Canadian imprint Mint and soon picked up by the indie giant Matador, it was one of those initial recordings so pitch perfect and fully formed that it could seemingly only portend a long career brimming with endless wonders. At those early stages, the band had a habit of making ironic light of its status as an ersatz “supergroup,” one containing both the masterful songwriting talents of group leader Carl Newman and Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, as well as the astounding vocal exertions of emerging alt-country star Neko Case. None were well known outside of a small following of devoted fans at the time. As events unfolded, each would increasingly gain a distinct and well-deserved reputation for ingenious work outside the band, and the supergroup appellation would evolve from comedic to strictly truthful. In recent history, no group has featured so much formidable established talent, collaborating on a regular basis.

Mass Romantic was a hard act to follow, but the slight exhale of 2003′s Electric Version neatly did the trick, slightly taking the foot off the pedal of sheer intensity while still providing killer tunes and vocals from all of the key players, including some of the best songs the group ever wrote. Part of the ongoing thrill of the band’s achievements has revolved around the fascinating tension between the group’s two songwriters, Newman and Bejar, close friends harboring distinctly different aesthetics. On Mass Romantic, Bejar serves as a kind of digressive, avant-garde foil for Newman’s relentlessly ingratiating emphasis on good-natured, economic major key anthems. As the band has evolved, this dynamic has nearly reversed itself completely on recent albums, with Newman increasingly indulging his taste for the sort of sophisticated art-pop characteristic of the prog-ier instincts of XTC, while Bejar has increasingly provided the more accessible melodies and sing-along choruses. As with other canonical bands featuring more than one fully minted major league writing talent, the sense of challenge and competition between the two feels like a perpetual subtext to any New Pornos record. May they continue to agitate one another to new heights in perpetuity.

By the time of the NP’s excellent 2005 release Twin Cinema, the deluge had begun in earnest. Neko had gained well-deserved international acclaim with her solo record Blacklisted, which both indemnified her own exceptional songwriting skills and established her neo-Loretta Lynn personae as a distressed damsel who is best not fucked with. The series of Destroyer records beginning with 2001′s Streethawk: A Seduction and ranging to the extraordinary 2011 release Kaputt vouchsafed its author as the nearly unchallenged champion songwriter of his era. Newman’s own solo work, released as A.C. Newman, was equally intriguing. 2004′s The Slow Wonder is a soft pop masterpiece one could easily imagine Harry Nilsson authoring at his most composed. Any one of them could sell out a show and bring a different audience. Bejar, with typical Great White North modesty, once warned: “Visualize success/but don’t believe your eyes.” But sure enough, success arrived, with all its attendant complications.

And yet, despite other paths and priorities, The New Pornographers have persisted in getting together and making terrific music. Both 2007′s Challengers and 2010′s Together are formidable additions to an already sterling catalog. There’s no telling what the future will allow, but the current view is replete with promise for the Canadian supergroup that started as a joke and ended up an indispensable bulwark of our musical landscape.

10. “The Body Says No” (from Mass Romantic, 2000)

The full-frontal guitar and synth assault of “The Body Says No” is in many ways typical of the harried atmosphere of Mass Romantic, suggesting something like The Human League on a particularly savage Dexedrine bender. It’s a track that features heart-racing start and stop dynamics, a breathtaking chorus, and cryptic lyrics lamenting both the death of psychedelia and the inertia of a body politic too sick to function. Whether an expression of our too exposed culture or a civic politics rendered pathetic, its aggrieved frustrations have never felt more timely.

9. “Jackie, Dressed In Cobras” (from Twin Cinema, 2005)

There is a kind of illicit thrill in hearing Dan Bejar’s songs rendered through the New Porno’s power pop machinery, a sense that under any other circumstance you might never be able to hear his dyspeptic musings rendered with such assertive agreeability. “Jackie, Dressed In Cobras” is a preeminent example of Bejar’s special genius for character study coupled with an apparent willingness to shrug off expectation. The effect on “Jackie, Dressed In Cobras” is something like “A Hard Day’s Night” wed to Leonard Cohen at his most aggrieved. What other band could ever achieve a similar effect?

8. “Myriad Harbour” (from Challengers, 2007)

The knowing, comic, and moving centerpiece of the Challengers album is a remarkably catchy shorthand view into Bejar’s ambivalence towards a fame he rightfully never expected. Addressing his band mates “Carl and John” over a lilting, slow-moving riff, Bejar confronts both the beauty of a sunset worth waking up for and the nervousness of a group of female fans only too anxious to be the toast of the town. A textbook New Pornos track, where the persistent fear of failure is consummately outdistanced by the threat of success.

7. “It’s Only Divine Right”(from Electric Version, 2003)

One of countless New Pornographers tracks that could easily have been a hit single, the wondrous major to minor hook fest “It’s Only Divine Right” manages the neat trick of sounding utterly modern and also like the British Invasion riff circa 1966, complete with harmonies and sentiments apparently beamed directly from the Hollies’ playbook. With its wondrous inverted “Paperback Writer” riff, and general air of cheerful insouciance, this is a perfect example of everything the New Pornographers do right: contemporary music that inherently understands its place outside the arbitrary constraints of moment to moment criticism.

6. “Mass Romantic” (from Mass Romantic, 2000)

The very first and nearly the best New Pornographers song features a swinging, glam-inflected beat, a Beach Boys-style vocal breakdown and most crucially one of the great balls-out vocal performances in recent memory by Neko Case, who beautifully bulldozes her subject matter with all of the sensitivity of a bullet train unconcerned with provincial stops. There is an otherworldliness to the track — indeed, Case, with her vocal rushed and pinched, barely sounds human. At times she is more emergency alarm than pop singer, but the ultimate effect is exhilarating and unmistakably intriguing. This is danger too compelling to steer away from.

5. “The Laws Have Changed” (from Electric Version, 2003)

The New Pornographers have taken an understandable care in remaining non-political — at least explicitly — over time. But listening to 2003′s epic “The Laws Have Changed,” it becomes ever more incredulous to separate rock and roll from real world fact in light of lines like “Sing all hail/What’ll be revealed today/When we peer into the great unknown?” From the misbegotten foreign wars that have come to characterize the post-millennial concept of American exceptionalism to the “make it up as you go” Wild West of our ever more tragic “war on drugs,” “The Laws Have Changed” accrues ever greater currency as a document of an ideology long on pretense but bereft of true meaning.

4. “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk” (from Together, 2010)

The bouncy and infectious “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk” is a lovely deviation from the standard New Pornographers’ formula. Featuring old-time sixties fanfare that brings to mind the Left Banke, terrific lyrics like, “Won’t wear my Sunday suit to walk that street/That would feel byzantine,” the song could be mistaken for a particularly robust exertion from labelmates Belle and Sebastian. The fantastic chamber arrangement, replete with sleigh bells and awesome handclaps is abetted by Kathryn Calder’s bell-clear vocals, and the chorus is a pulse-quickening thrill. Overall, a sublime listen.

3. “Sing Me Spanish Techno” – (from Twin Cinema, 2005)

The rollicking, emotionally ambivalent “Sing Me Spanish Techno” is the kind of hard won travelogue that peppers the catalog of many a band accomplished enough to tour the world and still find the experience more uneasy than it is edifying. Echoing the sentiments of Superchunk’s equally great “European Medicine” or the Mats “Can’t Hardly Wait,” this is a desperate postcard from a lost soul stranded too long in unforgiving environs.

2. “Ballad Of A Comeback Kid” (from Electric Version, 2003)

It is unclear if Dan Bejar was prescient, flippant or both when he wrote the lines to “Ballad Of A Comeback Kid” in 2003, what with its inferences of tenement living, global despair and an impending third world existence. In some ways he has always been a Cassandra figure, recognizing that “the scions of history/guess another mystery wrong”. At a bare minimum, this is a spectacular and knowing pop song, the kind that is as catchy as best of The Clash or Pretenders and equally as freighted with meaning. The titular “Comeback Kid” is far more familiar than the Rock God or Marvel hero. He is just one who dared to cut the queue in the cultural line. Long may he run.

1. “Letter From An Occupant” (from Mass Romantic, 2000)

On a short list of world historic great pop songs — ranging from “Take On Me” to “Hey Ya!” — the New Pornographers managed to place themselves smack in the middle of that strange and wonderful derby with one of the most inescapable tunes ever written. With the Neko-sang, Newman-written “Letter From An Occupant” –- 3 minutes and 46 seconds of unmitigated frustration and outraged bliss — the Pornos offer the sort of frustration and catharsis most closely associated with heavyweights like Springsteen, folks who recognize that their music is a way around, but never a real way out. For a great band who can only move ahead or rest on their laurels, this seems a critical question. Should they go beyond the scene and ask the big questions? Or just visualize success and don’t believe their eyes? Regardless the service has been well done.

Listen to the Spotify playlist here.

Comments (71)
  1. The Bleeding Heart Show

  2. Not enough love for Twin Cinema (Use It? The Bleeding Heart Show? Stacked and Crooked? Falling Through Your Clothes??? Come on !).

    Letter From An Occupant is where a lot of us fell in love with the band (and the vocoder voice of Neko Case), for sure, so the first place is fair. And The Law Have Changed or Sing Me Spanish Techno are all flawless choices. But, no, definitely not enough Twin Cinema here.

    And My Right Versus Yours from Challengers is such a gorgeous little epic of a song.

    • For what it’s worth and because I used to love that band so much, my list :

      1- The Bleeding Heart Show
      2- Letter From An Occupant
      3- Falling Through Your Clothes
      4- Mass Romantic
      5- My Rights Versus Yours
      6- Sing Me Spanish Techno
      7- The Laws Have Changed
      8- Use It
      9- Adventures in Solitude
      10- Stacked Crooked

      (a LOT of love for Twin Cinema)

    • Twin Cinema’s my favorite and I definitely feel kinda biased towards it since it was the first New Pornographers album I heard. I would totally want Use It and Bleeding Heart Show on my list, but thinking about all the great tracks this band has released, I almost understand missing them. I’d also want Testament to Youth in Verse and Adventures in Solitude, but the only choice on the Gum list that sticks out to me as weird is Jackie, Dressed in Cobras, which I don’t like as much as a lot of other Bejar songs. Like how are you guys getting lists shorter than 15 songs, I don’t get it, I’m scared and confused

      • I feel like Jackie Dressed In Cobras is the most fun Bejar song, but they miss a lot of his other ones on this list (I would go with Cobras and “Testament to Youth in Verse”)

  3. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much about the New Pornographers, but even with my limited knowledge I can tell that you overrated “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk” – you could pretty much draw randomly from Challengers and come up with something better than anything from Together

    • I’ll back up the “Sweet Talk” pick, though I’d probably move it down the list a few notches. Plus, I think Together’s a much more solid album overall than Challengers. The first four tracks on Challengers are fantastic but then there’s a pretty steep drop-off in quality, whereas Together’s a tight record with no glaring weak spots.

      • Couldn’t agree more about Together. I would’ve thrown Silver Jenny Dollar at #10 on my list but that’s probably due to my overwhelming penchant for one Dan Bejar. His Twin Cinema songs are untouchable.

  4. Only two songs from Twin Cinema? Another day, another botched list.

  5. dude, come on. no bleeding heart show?

  6. This is a left field choice but Execution Day, definitely Execution Day

    • Not as left field as July Jones, which is sorely lacking on this list. Ditto to Testament to Youth in Verse. Frankly, the top 10 could pretty much be full of songs from Electric Version and I’d be fine with it.

    • Anybody who doesn’t sing along full-voice to the end of Execution Day simply has no soul. That and The Jessica Numbers are the glaring omissions from this list in my book.

  7. I’m partial to “These Are The Fables” too.

    • Good call, Stephen Hall. Fables would be like #11 on my list below or maybe 9 or 10. Lots of great twists and turns, and when they finally get to the coda, watch out!

  8. Leaving out Testament to Youth in Verse? No, no, no. No, no, no.

  9. “Use It” might be number 1 or 2 for me. Surprised that didn’t make it somewhere in this list.

  10. One of the 5 best bands of this millenium. I’ll pick my top 10:

    10. All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth
    9. Use It
    8. The Laws Have Changed
    7. Twin Cinema
    6. It’s only Divine Right
    5. All the Old Showstoppers
    4. Three or Four
    3. Jackie Dressed in Cobras
    2. Mass Romantic
    1. Bones of an Idol

  11. No “Bleeding Heart Show” is just crazy.

  12. “Adventures Of Solitude”

  13. Top 4 Best New Pornographers Lead Vocalists

    4. Kathryn Calder
    3. Dan Bejar
    2. Carl Newman
    1. Neko Case

  14. Centre For Holy Wars!!!!!!!!! Nowhere? Really?

  15. Me, before reading list: “I don’t care what’s on this list, if it doesn’t end with Letter from an Occupant at #1, I’m going to be pissed.”

    Me, after reading list: “Carry on.”

  16. I can ride with this list. I’m particularly impressed that you rate “Ballad of a Comeback Kid” as highly as you do –– it’s a fantastic song. I wouldn’t be able to make a list that omitted “Challengers,” “The Slow Descent into Alcoholism,” or “The Bleeding Heart Show,” so I’d probably sub those in for “Mass Romantic,” “The Body Says No,” and “It’s Only Divine Right.” Still, good choices all, though I think the only way someone could fuck this up would be by selecting a bunch of songs from the back half of Challengers.

  17. 1. The Spirit of Giving
    2. Adventures in Solitude
    3. The Bleeding Heart Show
    4. Mass Romantic
    5. The Laws Have Changed
    6. The Bones of an Idol
    7. These are the Fables
    8. Challengers
    9. Myriad Harbour
    10. Letter From an Occupant

  18. How about some love for July Jones!?

  19. solid list, I’ve always been impartial to Mass Romantic so a little dissapointed “Jackie” and “The Fake Headlines” didn’t make the cut, but with such a inherently good pop song writting band its hard to go wrong with any choices. “Letter From An Occupant” is probably my favorite Neko Case song that she ever did with them!

  20. -These are the Fables
    -Bones of and Idol
    -All of the Thing that Go To Make Heaven and Earth
    -Your Hands (Together)
    -Use It
    -Bleeding Heart Show

    I’m shocked by the choices from Twin Cinema, clearly the writers and I differ on the the merit of Dan Bejar’s input

  21. The. Bleeding. Heart. Show. Period.

  22. Good Bejar representation here. His stuff always tends to be my favorite on NP records. I think he’s a really great writer of straightforward pop songs, even though that’s not usually what he writes for Destroyer, except for a lot of the stuff on Streethawk (which is my favorite Destroyer album). Probably would have found a place for Spirit of Giving, but I can’t quibble too much with this list. Ballad is my favorite NP song.

    Also, might have slotted in Graceland from the Matador compilation. I think that’s as good as anything Newman has done.

  23. Wow. I really like Moves, Crash Years, and Up in the Dark…they might be close to my favorites (really into Together)

  24. Looks like Bleeding Heart Show and From Blown Speakers are missing from the list.

  25. I expected The Bleeding Hearts Show to be #1. I would have raised an eyebrow if it wasn’t in the top 5. But I’m truly shocked that it missed the list.

  26. So yeah, I’ll echo the sentiment that Twin Cinema is under-represented. It’s their best album and it contains a handful of MAJOR songs. That said, I’m quite pleased that “The Body Says No” snuck onto this list. I’ve always held this one in high esteem even when everyone else was creaming their jeans of “Letter From An Occupant.” The drop out on the chorus is quite possibly the best hook Newman ever came up with.

  27. Let me just be the two-hundredth person to say “The Bleeding Heart Show.”

  28. Philip Cosores  |   Posted on Oct 12th, 2013 +3

    You guys notice there is no Bleeding Heart Show?

  29. this list could just be a re-arranged track listing of Twin Cinema and it would be better.

  30. Twin Cinema is unbelievably stacked. Their previous albums to that were ultra strong and yet they still built up to that pinnacle, and since then they’ve fallen off, which is weird because they could do no wrong on the first three. Challengers seems like a missed opportunity and I really feel like it is the direction Carl was going. Some good songs but some misfires. Together just seems flat even though it is more “New Pornographers-y” than Challengers.

    1. Letter From an Occupant

    Top 10 missing tracks:

    1. Testament to Youth In Verse [should have replaced Myriad Harbor]
    2. Bleeding Heart Show
    3. Miss Teen Wordpower
    4. Spirit of Giving [second alternate for replacing Myriad Harbor]
    5. Bones of an Idol [boot the good "Sing Me Spanish Techno" replace with the excellent "Bones of an Idol" or "Falling Through Your Clothes"]
    6. From Blown Speakers
    7. My Slow Descent into Alcoholism

    A bunch more that I will have to get back to. My computer was so upset about this list that itunes crashed and is mad, and the internet is slow with defiance.

  31. Nobody has mentioned “The Jessica Numbers”? Blasphemy

    • Ha, that is the only three star song on that album for me- I skip it just to anger my friend who loves it. They also have played it in concert a lot and I am all nooooooooooooooo. ;)

  32. I’m fairly happy with the list – “Occupant” deserves #1, and I was happy to see “Jackie Dressed in Cobras” make it and “Spanish Techno” chart so high.

    I’d have included “Graceland” and “Falling Through Your Clothes”, though.

  33. 1.The Laws Have Changed
    2.Letter From An Occupant
    3.Mass Romantic
    4.Bleeding Heart Show
    5.Slow Descent into Alcoholism
    6.Streets of Fire
    7.The Body Says No
    8.Miss Teen Wordpower
    9.Ballad of a Comeback Kid
    10.Testament to Youth in Verse

    I was shocked that “sweet talk, sweet talk” made the top ten, but when I sat down and typed my list I ended up with 5 of the Bracy’s picks, and my top 3 were all represented. So, I can hardly complain.

    Electric Version was my introduction to the band, and I still love it the most. I think side 2 has the most solid stretch of songwriting they ever put out. “Divine Right” is certainly a head turner, but over the years I’ve decided it is the 8th greatest song of the last 8 on the record. But again, not much to complain about since I would love to put all of those 8 songs on this list.

    But the truth is that the opening of Mass Romantic and the entire stretch of Twin Cinema are just more fun. The peaks are higher and the pacing is deft. Really, cutting two of my favorite Dan Bejar songs AND spanish techno off the list just makes me feel like an idiot. Making top 10 lists sucks.

  34. Philip Cosores  |   Posted on Oct 14th, 2013 +1

    1. Bleeding Heart Show.
    2. It’s Only Divine Right
    3. Letter from an Occupant
    4. To Wild Homes
    5. Testament to Youth in Verse
    6. Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk
    7. These Are the Fables
    8. Challengers
    9. Miss Teen Wordpower
    10. Jackie

  35. I don’t know if I’d put it in my top 10, but I love “All the Old Showstoppers”. Also, obligatory “Whyyyyyy?!?!” in regards to the lack of Bleeding Heart Show.

  36. The thing with the Bleeding Heart Show, when you really listen to it under scrutiny and judge it based on the merits of pure pop songwriting, is that it’s a little disconnected and clunky. Yes, it’s emotionally stirring, it’s anthemic, it has some goosebump-inducing harmonies and some kick ass drumming, but solely as a song, it leaves a bit to be desired in a way that many, many other Pornographers (and AC Newman solo) songs don’t. So I can understand how it might not make somebody’s list. That said, it’s at least in my top 5.

  37. “Bleeding Heart Show” embodies the New Porno’s best “big idea” power pop and is an obvious omission, as about everyone has stated above.

    Couple things – “Myriad Harbour” is not the centerpiece of Challengers by any stretch. It may be the most accessible and straightforward pop song on the album, but “Unguided” is both literally and conceptually the centerpiece. Five years from now, I think this list will look very different… shifting from angular, simplistic rock songs to more substantive lyrical content on the past two albums has alienated fans and critics alike, but the songs are some of their best.

  38. My MY my my slow descent into alcoholism it went something like this song.

  39. bleeding heart show is the best

  40. I’d throw in a vote for “All For Swinging You Around” (although I might be in the minority, haven’t seen anyone else even mention it). Also partial to “Up In The Dark”, although partially because it has a great music video.

  41. Song that should be the best NP song…. “I’m Not Talking.” AC Newman solo record, best of the year, IMHO.

  42. So much kvetching. So many omissions. And yet not a mention anywhere of the one song Carl Newman can slot inn alongside any standard in the Jerome Kerns or Burt Bacharach archives: “Go Places,” people.

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