Review Summary: Supremely catchy indie pop.
Side by side, on Mass Romantic
, the New Pornographers’ first and latest albums respectively, the idea of a band’s “maturation” is on trial. With the latter, the New Pornographers take themselves too seriously, tuck their shirts in, and make a disappointingly rigid and lackluster album. If that is what maturity sounds like, I hope some bands never grow up. On the other hand, on the band’s 2000 debut Mass Romantic
, the New Pornographers seem to have an unlimited childlike spirit, but with enough power to avoid being “cute.” This is not to say that this album’s excellence is solely based on a comparison to the band’s weakest release, as the album completely stands up on its own, but it is the album’s high energy power pop hooks and irresistible catchiness that make Mass Romantic
an exhilarating listen.
As good as the New Pornographers can be, it is also unfortunately glaring when some songs fall behind others in quality. Mass Romantic
is extremely cohesive and tight, but being a haven for some instantly memorable songs and clear hits, it, like many a pop or hook-driven album, is vulnerable to a picking-and-choosing listening style. I am no exception to this habit; at times a near perfect melody off of Mass Romantic
, or another New Pornographers release for that matter, will be bouncing around in my head and I want to listen to only that song, not necessarily the entire album. Regardless, the album, listened as a whole, is certainly a treat.
Opener “Mass Romantic” is an instantly memorable romp that mirrors the energy that the band keeps up over the albums entire 40 minutes. Singer Neko Case sings forcefully but always with the aim of poppy melodicism. Fellow frontman A.C. Newman and other band members provide backing vocals, creating a rich, energetic atmosphere. Clocking in at 4:11, “Mass Romantic” is the album’s only song beyond the 4-minute mark. The song’s basic formula is found all across the album, with backing vocals supporting warm melodies and tight instrumentation, especially on guitar, putting the “power” in the band’s brand of power pop. Following “The Fake Headlines,” a largely acoustic, short rocker that is ultimately unmemorable, the next standout track is “The Slow Descent into Alcoholism,” which showcases the ever-present absurdity of the New Pornographers’ lyrics while the song’s upbeat demeanor sharply contrast the material of the lyrics. Generally, lyrics and subject matters on Mass Romantic
are whimsical in nature and largely not the core of the album’s appeal, although it is unclear if the band themselves feel this way.
Heavy synthesizers and frantic drumming, courtesies of Blaine Thurier and Kurt Dahle respectively, characterize the next track “Mystery Hours” which reveals a slightly darker, more jagged side of the band. “Jackie,” by contrast, is immediately as light as a feather. These songs, however, feel only as rest stops for the main act songs. Such a main attraction certainly includes “Letter From an Occupant,” which Case belts from the rooftops with the rest of the band in furious support in backing vocals and energetic drumming and guitar clamor. On “To Wild Homes,” Dan Bejar, contributing songwriter and singer, peaks his head in for an almost folk inspired duet with Case that is shrouded in light electronic squeals and the more natural strum of an acoustic guitar.
If “Letter From an Occupant” was Case’s shining moment on Mass Romantic
, Newman’s would be “The Body Says No.” The song sports an energized, synthesizer-heavy build-up to an exhilarating climax that breaks just in time for Newman to nail his towering vocals with maximum force. Following that, “Execution Day,” probably the quirkiest and one of the slowest on the album, is thoroughly enjoyable with an angelic, watch-the-world-pass chorus, while “Centre for Holy Wars” is an airy, catchy rocker that demonstrates the band’s whimsical but clever and often funny way with words: “Hope grows greener than grass stains.”
“The Mary Martin Show,” while not particularly memorable for its hook, shows a noticeable Beatles influence while a saxophone joins in on the action. Album closer “Breakin’ The Law,” which happily plods along to a final breakdown, highlights the childlike exuberance of the band as what sounds like the entire band joins in towards the end to chant the rest of the song together.
While the triumphant hooks may not be evenly spread across the album, Mass Romantic
showcases charming youthfulness and a set of strongly catchy songs. Although perhaps lacking an understandable depth, as the lyrical natures of the songs are whimsical yet beg little to no interpretation, this album is probably the finest example of the New Pornographers’ upbeat power pop and quirky sensibilities. Chances are, at least a few of these songs will have sticking power on the mind of a pop or power pop music lover. If you can resist simply picking and choosing to play the song of the day currently in your head, and even if you can’t, Mass Romantic
is lighthearted fare constantly aiming to please.