Can you be a supergroup when your members aren’t really that famous? The question comes up from time to time as indie musicians shuffle into various constellations, inspiring their managers and publicists to stretch that “super-” prefix to its breaking point. I wasn’t yet receiving press releases or even tuned in to the indie rock world when a power-pop combo out of Vancouver calling themselves the New Pornographers released their debut album — 20 years ago this Saturday, to be exact — so I can’t say exactly how much fanfare greeted its arrival or how much hype the band and their business associates were attempting to dredge up. Still, I’d wager that whatever expectations accompanied Mass Romantic, the album obliterated them.
The key players were cult concerns at best. The ringleader was Carl Newman, late of Sub Pop also-rans Zumpano. He was flanked by alt-country howler Neko Case, the lineup’s closest thing to a star, and Dan Bejar, a mercurial misanthrope who reserved most of his wordy screeds for his own project Destroyer. Also on board were John Collins of Nardwuar’s band the Evaporators, Kurt Dahle of Limblifter, and filmmaker Blaine Thurier. “It’s almost embarrassing to be referred to as a supergroup,” Newman told Pitchfork a year later, after Mass Romantic had blown up bigger than any of their prior endeavors. “I mean, none of us are famous… Neko is. But [not] the rest of us. They have the posters with our five pictures and our five names, and you look at it and you go, ‘Who the fuck are those guys? I know Neko but… Carl Newman?! Who the fuck is that?'”
Mass Romantic was packed with songs so catchy, so charming, so electrifying that people were bound to find out who the fuck Carl Newman was. It’s the kind of all-killer no-filler debut that many bands aspire to but few can muster. I cannot emphasize enough how much fun it is, and how hard the band sledgehammers every beat and note. Both sides of the hyphen in “power-pop” are an understatement. This album rules. It slaps. It’s seriously so good, y’all — but then, you probably already know that because Mass Romantic made the New Pornographers one of the most popular and acclaimed bands in indie rock.
How could it not have? The title track races out of the gate with serious dance-in-your-desk-chair energy, piling on the harmonic bombast until it feels like it might topple over. On the finger-snapping, piano-pounding romp “My Slow Descent Into Alcoholism,” the verse is a chorus, the bridge is a chorus, and the chorus is a mega-chorus. “Mystery Hours” infuses three straight minutes of bashed-out rocket-launch power with the giddy thrill of seeing how much helium you can pump into a balloon before it explodes. “The Body Says No” turns that upward momentum 90 degrees and barrels forward, new melodies emerging like smaller, more agile Batmobiles bursting out of the tank-size Batmobile. “To Wild Homes” and “The Mary Martin Show” are would-be retro TV theme songs so zippy that someone should shoehorn them into a Nick At Nite original series. And what more could you possibly want from a power-pop song than Neko Case breathing cartoon fire while quoting Joni Mitchell over the pogo-bobbing Muppet-band insanity that is “Letter From An Occupant”?
As a lyricist, Newman was quite prescient: “Centre For Holy Wars” predates 9/11 by almost a year, and “Fake Headlines” hits different in an era when QAnon is going mainstream. But the words are honestly beside the point when singers this compelling are belting out songs this bombastic. Case rightfully gets most of the attention: Whether singing lead or backup, her dynamo vocals leap out of the arrangements the way a strong personality commands a room — and that’s before she even cuts loose with that supernatural wail and burns everything down. That said, Newman holds his own as Case’s foil, bringing just the right balance of poise and exuberance to his own inventively crafted hooks. He’s more often the straight man in these songs, but even Newman can start to sound like an animated character when he lets himself get worked up.
And then there’s Bejar, whose glammed-out nasal bleat pops up now and again to lend another layer of mystery to the proceedings. He was not yet the object of worship he’d become circa Kaputt, but his magnetism was already at work here, and his wiry compositions add further complexity to the Mass Romantic machine. I wish he wrote more anthems like the punchy midtempo “Jackie,” with its euphoric finale, and the quirky, discordant “Execution Day,” with its breathtaking pivot into high drama. (It’s like The Meadowlands three years before The Meadowlands.) And I’m glad Newman piled gang vocals onto the former Destroyer track “Breakin’ The Law” and built it out into the epic closing track this album deserves.
Mass Romantic dropped when I was in high school, at a time when I still put a lot of stock into the idea of genre boundaries and derived much of my identity from the kinds of music I did and didn’t like. In hindsight, these tracks played a huge role in helping me understand that rock could pop and pop could rock. They jolted awake parts of my brain I wasn’t even aware of. They also helped to lift Newman, Case, and Bejar to underground celebrity status, earning the New Pornographers supergroup status retroactively — as if anyone could hear Mass Romantic and think of this group as anything less than super.