opinion byMATTHEW M. F. MILLER
Happy pop music isn’t exactly in short supply these days. If anything we’re in the thick of a renaissance for the relentlessly danceable productions that added a dose of sunshine to even the most lyrically dour 80s pop songs. What is noticeably absent from the landscape, however, is a dearth of successful pop songwriters who can access a personal music history deeper than Madonna and Whitney Houston. That’s primarily because age and wisdom have never been cool in pop music, which makes what New Pornographers have achieved on their invigorating new album, Brill Bruisers, all the more remarkable.
When stripped down to the essential elements, New Pornographers’ music should be cheesier than it is, less impactful, less fun and certainly less cool. Way back when, in decades preceding the average indie buff’s birth, the layered “bo-ba-bo-ba-ba-bo” and “oohooo” harmonies of the album’s über-poppy opening title track were pretty standard fare. It’s not what’s in vogue today, but in the assured hands of A.C. Newman, Neko Case and Dan Bejar, it sounds almost revelatory. While their last two albums certainly had a generous portion of charming moments, 2010’s Together and 2007’s Challengers both felt like classic side projects, with each singer taking a turn at the mic as if recording these songs was merely an excuse to bring them all together under one album to record as a singular sound, but not so much as a coherent band. Both albums felt like they followed a prescriptive blueprint for what a New Pornographers album sounds like, and that predictability is what kept Canada’s foremost supergroup from ever replicating the enormous success of their early albums, Twin Cinema and Electric Version.
Brill Bruisers remedies that, in part by allowing the principles to feel present in every song. Neko Case has a tendency to steal the show with her blunt-force badassitude, but album standouts “Brill Bruisers”, “Fantasy Fools” and “Marching Orders” embrace all of the band’s voices, with members even occasionally exchanging vocal duties in the same song (“You Tell Me Where”). More importantly, guitars share the limelight with drummer Kurt Dahle’s driving beats and the synth and keyboard power of the band’s lesser-known members, Blaine Thurier and Kathryn Calder. It’s not so much a new sound as it is a more robust, balanced sound – a beautiful chair perfectly placed in an already beautiful room.
What’s also evident is that the new album has legs in large part because the songwriting is deeper, riskier and more engaged. “Backstairs” embraces a 70s rock opera vibe and “Dancehall Domine” is as indebted to Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” as it is to the soundtrack at your go-to retro roller rink. When the album stumbles it tends to be on Bejar’s watch. His first major contribution to Brill Bruisers, “War on the East Coast” is it’s first self-serious moment, a Morrissey-esque affair that is pretty much held afloat by the infectious rhythms and ephemeral grind and swirls of guitar and keyboard. “Born With a Sound” is a carbon copy, only not as interesting the second go-round. By the time we hit Bejar’s third contribution, “Spyder”, the album feels as if we’ve accidentally stumbled into bonus tracks that were not meant to be part of the album proper.
Excessiveness has plagued the band since its inception – no album has ever been shorter than 12 tracks, and a tighter edit of the track listing could have kept it from devolving into repetitive territory. So much fun, upbeat sound doesn’t lend itself to a prolonged running time. Even the band’s best work has always felt a bit overlong and short on ideas by the time it reaches its conclusion, a minor knock on an otherwise great group. Perhaps that’s the risk you run when bringing together a deck of massively talented players. It’s certainly a risk that has undoubtedly produced massive rewards. B