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.