Review Summary: A disappointing misstep from the New Pornographers.
Part of what makes the New Pornographers so admired in indie rock/pop is how they are so unapologetically catchy and musically upbeat, standing out amongst their peers in embracing the “pop” in “indie pop.” Out of Canada, like so many quality indie bands nowadays, the New Pornographers also excel with funny and always witty lyrics in memorable rhyme schemes that contribute to the band’s image of a fun-loving, if at times sarcastic, group always aiming to please anyone with an ear for a good power pop tune. But either in subtle ways or overtly, bands develop their sound, often at the behest of critics. Here lies a problem, because in Challengers
, the New Pornographers tweak their instrumentals and ultimately their overall mood to more steady, controlled tones, resulting is what is ultimately their weakest performance yet.
First off, while it is a more solid argument to make when discussing a more satisfying album, one should not judge an album entirely on its cover artwork, no matter how absurd and unattractive it may be, like in this case. But as for the music, what really matters, Challengers
is overarchingly dull, especially by New Pornographers’ standards, but a few quality songs save it from complete failure. The album starts off with the satisfyingly melodic “My Rights Versus Yours,” which ends up being a highlight on the album. However, two relatively drab songs follow that fail to capture the infectiousness that normally characterizes the band, at least not for more than a few seconds. “Challengers” in particular is a slow march building towards an ultimately absent climax. The song unsuccessfully tries to translate the piano-driven harmonies of Neko Case and A.C. Newman into substantial gravitas.
“Myriad Harbor” is a particularly interesting point of the album, as to myself, it is quite an enigma: at once annoying, but also fresh and full of the New Pornographer’s trademark quirky attitude. Here, Dan Bejar, full of inflection, and an odd, Case-led vocal amalgamation play off each other, which, combined with the surf-like, paranoid electric guitar carrying the melody, continuously conjure up visions of a back-and-forth between Frank Black and Kim Deal in my mind. A decent song, this Pixies sound-a-like gets bonus points for being on this record, as it is instantly distinguishable from material that blends together quite unrecognizably, and not in a good way.
“All The Things That Go To Make Heaven And Earth” finally matches the heightened pace that is more the band’s forte, but the album is tempered again by the forgettable “Failsafe” and the decent “Unguided,” which is more of a success in the “gravitas” department than “Challengers.” At this point, however, the wheels surely fall off this indie pop ride. “Entering White Cecilia” suffers from an immediately irksome chorus and “la-la” band vocals while “Mutiny, I Promise You” sounds like the band on autopilot. “Go Places” and “Adventures in Solitude” suffer from the album’s repetitiveness in instrumentally minimalist choruses, with the latter, due to some thoroughly uninspiring lyrics (“We thought we lost you/ We thought we lost you/ We thought we lost you/ Welcome back”), falling flatter than almost anything in the New Pornographers’ catalog.
Though not strong enough to save Challengers
, the closer “Spirit of Giving” is actually a great song and probably the best on the album. Some interesting lyrics finally rise to prominence and the multi-layered singing of the chorus that trails off until the end achieves profoundness where the rest of the album did not. In essence, what was fading off into silence at the end of the album should have been a major part of the many special things that a New Pornographers album should be: catchy and uplifting, if not inspiring.
The two songs on the album written and sung by Dan Bejar turn out to be arguably the two best on the album, and Bejar has musical focus extending far beyond the New Pornographers, continuing to front the indie band Destroyer and supergroup Swan Lake, featuring members from Frog Eyes and Wolf Parade. It’s hard to make a judgment about the New Pornographers’ best material from this album coming from its most free-recording member only to say that hopefully main songwriter A.C. Newman will create more interesting songs on the New Pornographers’ next album that recapture the excitement of earlier work.
, The New Pornographers attempt crossing into more serious territory than with their previous material, which is thankfully not depressing but still lacking the spontaneity and catchiness of the band at its best, and having none of the frantic energy that was so endearing in their previous releases. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that the inspiring melody of the close of “Spirit of Giving”, sounding like the sidekick to Twin Cinema
’s “The Bleeding Heart Show,” was never present in the body of the album and instead, the infectiousness that is usually the New Pornographers’ mainstay was shelved in favor of over-processed, overly methodical songs lacking energy and life.