Review Summary: "No, I've never been close, but I've never been far away."
At this point, it’s hard for Carl Newman to defy the expectations automatically placed upon any album bearing his name. There are the two albums with Zumpano, a ‘90s power-pop outfit (see: Sloan, also of the Great White North, who did it better). The five eerily consistent albums with the New Pornographers, a Canadian power-pop “supergroup” who reasonably could only fall under that term if you were a fervent follower of obscure ‘90s indie acts or in tune with mildly popular transplanted alt-country singers. Now, with Shut Down the Streets
, three albums of sparkling solo work, releases that tend to weigh heavily on the side of (surprise!) power-pop, while leaning ever so slightly towards the ‘70s singer-songwriter tropes that Newman has long worshipped and bolstered by a seemingly endless bag of hooks and melodies that would make Costello and McCartney proud. It’s perhaps a tragedy of the digital age that for over the course of all these songs Newman has cultivated a distinct identity that, in a different time, may have made him one of a generation’s truly great songsmiths; as it stands now, this consistency has nevertheless marked him as “that guy from the New Pornographers.” He is the straitlaced pop scholar to Dan Bejar’s schizophrenic genre outlaw, the driving engine behind the success of one of indie’s biggest millennial bands but never the kind to pull on any heartstrings, to really stand up and beg to be noticed. Shut Down the Streets
is an album that longs to defeat that perception, to go onward into some brave new territory – hell, Newman seems to already be there on the album cover – but it can’t help but keep one foot in the past.
Easy signposts to point to for the album are the much-reported death of his mother and birth of his son, two seismic life events for any person, much less in such close proximity to each other and in the midst of that person recording an album. It’s easy because Newman has never been so heart-on-his-sleeve with his songwriting as he is here, holding forth on grief and newborn love with equal, unusual candor. The gradual triumphant swell that bubbles to the surface in album centerpiece “Strings” is far less deliberate than past major-key jubilations like Get Guilty’s
“There Are Maybe Ten Or Twelve,” utilizing this album’s wider palette of sounds and instruments to a pronounced, organic effect. With it, the song’s understated chorus of “we’ve been waiting for you” is a heartbreakingly simple depiction of a father’s love rather than a bombastic, orchestrated declaration.
The album has a more bucolic tone than anything in Newman’s past work, a pastoral hue that calls to mind John Wesley Harding
-era Bob Dylan and the work of New Pornos associate Neko Case (who is on board for some typically lovely harmonic contributions). Mixing elements of misty blue-eyed folk with his more typical baroque pop arrangements, that Americana edge that Newman has always tended so carefully yet shown so sparingly bears some pleasantly surprising fruit in tracks like “You Could Get Lost Out Here” and the rural jig of “The Troubadour.” Indeed, it’s the tracks that call to mind the past that tend to distract from the album’s overall feel. “Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns” is a prototypical New Pornographers single, right down to that rollicking backbeat, clink-your-PBRs-together chorus and Case’s howling backing vocals, while “There’s Money in New Wave” is just the kind of carefully enunciated twee ballad Newman can’t help but writing at least once an album. At other times, the album’s distinct style detracts from the song’s themselves: the woodwind that skips about merrily introducing “Hostages” is one such example, gone as abruptly as it is introduced until a brief reemergence in the second half, an outsized distraction in an otherwise unremarkable pop-rock tune.
While decidedly uneven and lacking in the sheer number of hooks a regular dose of Newman provides, Shut Down the Streets
does have two of the best songs of his long career in opener “I’m Not Talking” and closer “They Should Have Shut Down the Streets.” The former is a master class in songwriting, something that sounds like it was lifted wholesale from some '70s AM glen, and the subtle percussion and even the damn woodwind build to something truly magical, that affecting assurance, “No, I’ve never been close, but I’ve never been far away.” The latter is a slow burning recollection of his mother’s death, as quiet and contemplative as “I’m Not Talking” is soaring and rhapsodic. Both are fundamentally melancholy but at opposite ends of the spectrum in tone and the feelings they engender. With two bookends like these, it’s perhaps too easy to write off everything in between as not up to snuff, and while that may be unfair, it’s also inevitable – it’s these scattered moments of brilliance that make everything else seem so inconsequential. Shut Down the Streets
is no doubt a flawed record, but the more I listen to it the more I see not just A.C. Newman the preternaturally gifted power-pop auteur in its failures and its successes but also Carl Newman the person, more relatable than he has ever been before.