The New Pornographers – Together
To be honest, my biggest problem with the New Pornographers latest LP is its title, even though I think Together is a pretty perfect distillation of the band in 2010. It's just that I long for the simpler times, the times when albums with snappy titles like Mass Romantic, Electric Version, and Twin Cinema ruled my heart and made me quit doubting my love of pop music and embrace it for all its hooky goodness. Sadly, their last record Challengers, despite being a step forward and a stab at maturity, was a bit of a let down. It had some great songs, but it also had some that felt half-baked and despite really enjoying serious songs like “Unguided” and “Adventures in Solitude,” they made the album a bit uneven and, dare I say, a bit of a downer. Maybe that's why I put off listening to Together. I was nervous and pretty certain that the band's time had passed and while I would enjoy the record, it was still going to be Challengers-esque and...well, I was just so completely fucking wrong. This is an immensely satisfying record that I'm falling more and more in love with every single day.
Again, the title. I can see a few reasons for it, namely AC Newman's recent descent into wedded bliss. There's a new found joy and excitement in his songwriting, something he put on display with his 2009 solo album Get Guilty. I hated that record for a while, for some reason, and wrote a pretty mean review of it for KJHK, and then I got really into it and tracks like “All of My Days and All of My Days Off” and “There May Be Ten or Twelve” illustrated a potential return to form for Newman, who has over the decade become a sort of pop music messiah. I was totally right, too, because Newman is totally on his game, but with one big twist: The New Pornographers no longer seems to be the Carl Newman show, which was one of Challenger's biggest problems. This sounds like the New Pornographers show, and despite four different voices singing lead and harmony at various points and two different songwriters sharing the stage, it sounds like a unified whole for the first time in, well, the New Pornographers career.
Hence, the other possible meaning of the title, which I like, but still wish it had been titled after the album's monster jam “Crash Years.” But it's really not that important. What is important is that they sound like a well-oiled machine that pushes all of my pop buttons in the right way. It's got the bright, major-chord heavy pop jams that made me a fan in the first place, it never gets lost in slow jam territory, and it introduces new elements (a bevy of strings, a few perfectly placed horn parts, etc) all while staying true to the course the New Pornographers set out on with that opening keyboard part on “Mass Romantic.”
Notably, Dan Bejar's songs sound like New Pornographers this time around rather than Destroyer outcasts (or, in the case of “Breakin' the Law,” “Streets of Fire,” and “The Spirit of Giving,” actual Destroyer songs reworked for the band). “Silver Jenny Dollar” is easily the brightest thing Dan Bejar has ever written, and as a Bejar obsessive, I fucking love it. It's a pure pop song, plain and simple, that warrants a knee-jerk back-button mashing upon completion. Some may find it slight, given the grandeur of Bejar's songwriting with Destroyer, but I don't really care. Destroyer aficionados who find that song too upbeat will absolutely have no qualms with “Daughter of Sorrow,” which feels more like vintage Dan Bejar yet, with Neko Case's perfect perfect perfect backing vocals (in addition to the backing vocals of, well, pry everyone else), it's got that New Porny feel all over it! It's gorgeous and despite being a slower, more somber number, in the verses, the choruses just explode with energy.
Then there's Immaculate Machine's (and Carl Newman's niece) Kathryn Calder, who got off to a rocky start as a full-fledged New Pornographer on Challengers. She sang the mid-album dud “Fail-Safe,” and while her vocals on “Adventures in Solitude” were amazing and illustrated all of her potential, that song still feels out of place on that record. But here, shit yes, it's on. She takes lead vocals on “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk” and pretty steps out of Neko's shadow to become her equal. It's a beautiful song, full of newfound orchestral shit, chimey keys, and a liltly little verse that breaks into a motherfucking triumphant chorus that sends the track into monster jam territory. Ok, maybe it's not a monster jam, because those are still reserved for Neko Case.
Neko takes on the role of classic diva on this record, and the album's first single, “Crash Years,” is a testament to why we love the New Pornographers, and moreover, why we love Neko Case. I'm sure there's a legion of haters that hate indie-pop's fiery haired chanteuse, and I will never understand how or why because goddamn, there's a pleasure center in my body that just starts going wild when I hear Neko Case singing. Her vocal range is effectively what saves mid-album slow-jam “My Shepherd,” which would pretty much fall apart without her voice to um, guide it (get it, like a shepherd!).
And then there's Carl, who is still the team leader, but has a greater understanding of teamwork. He takes lead vocals on the strings-heavy opener “Moves” and the sweeping, film-score-esque strings-heavy closer “We End Up Together,” effectively book-ending Together with two of the album's best songs. He also takes lead on the late-album pop-jam (a standard for the New Porns) “Up in the Dark” and my favorite track on the album, the uber-sweet “A Bite Out of My Bed,” which is treated with some pretty amazing horn parts that give the song an ebullient bounce perfect for a new love's mix tape when paired with missing-someone-bad lyrics. It feels carefree, which is an excellent thing. It's a ditty! A great ditty! Also, the vocal line on the chorus of Newman and Case's duet “Valkyrie in the Roller Disco” is the stuff of legend. It's a gorgeous piece of work that showcases all the different strains of talent that run through this band.
Actually, I could say that about this whole album. It not only feels like a return to form, but also a step in the right direction. The band is growing up, and rather than coming off as a bunch of overgrown twenty-somethings, they sound like adults without sacrificing their masterful grasp of pop music. It's a windows down spring and summertime album just when I needed one. It's not quite a masterpiece, but it is a faith-restoring album that makes me think that maybe the New Pornographer's best album isn't always going to be Twin Cinema and that they may have another masterpiece up their collective sleeves. Whether the title refers to the band as a unified working unit or Carl Newman's love life (I just realized that "We End Up Together" has, um, the word TOGETHER in it), maybe time will reveal it to be a great album title. Either way, it's a great album!
Enjoy the title track!