Saturday, October 19, 2019

album review: 'in the morse code of brake lights' by the new pornographers

So here's a fun question: how much do people consider The New Pornographers these days?

I'd argue it's relevant, as past and present solo members like Neko Case and Dan Bejar as Destroyer have charted critically acclaimed territory in recent years that many could argue outstrips the band's original run of insane quality in the first half of the 2000s. And while I look back on projects like Brill Bruisers and Whiteout Conditions this decade with a lot of fondness, it's more for snippets of anthemic brilliance rather than a consistently strong but never quite transcendent whole. And it's not even that this supergroup feels like a 'hangout project' or anything like that for prodigious talents to bounce ideas off each other - especially in recent years, a lot of A.C. Newman's writing has a sense of urgency that keeps things driving with more momentum and outright anxiety than you normally see for acts twenty years into their careers. Maybe it's the political subtext lurking just out of frame, maybe it's middle age... either way, it has led to some phenomenal songs, and while Dan Bejar only contributes cowriting credits to a single song here, I've always thought The New Pornographers can knock at least a few songs out of the park, so what did we get from In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights?

So this is going to sound a lot worse than it actually is: The New Pornographers made a very good album... and yet I'm not as excited or riveted by it as I'd like to be. Part of this is a natural outgrowth from it not quite having songs that would become locks on my year-end list in the same way Whiteout Conditions did, and I wouldn't say any song here reaches that level... and yet it's strong enough across the board to wind up skidding towards greatness all the same, which is something a lot of bands with less talent could never pull off!

And what's fascinating is that the group effectively reached this point by continuing along the same anxious but seething trajectory that made the abstract writing of Whiteout Conditions so gripping. Hell, with more focus this time around I'd argue it's better - many critics have highlighted the lingering sense of apocalyptic dread lurking in both the delivery and in the lyrical subtext, but that's more because 'keeping one's head down amidst the chaos' on the last project has curdled into increasingly reckless, increasingly bold strikes... although never quite bold enough to put some real teeth to that revolution. This is something that has irked me about A.C. Newman's writing in the past - it might be more realistic for folks of his age to simply subsist and live under increasingly authoritarian times and he's going to plant the warning for the crackdown across 'The Sudden Knock' and 'Higher Beams', but across an album laced with this tension, I kept waiting for the breaking point that never really came; an album that needs giants to fight the colossus in the room instead of building their own. Now that's not saying there isn't a place for taking the long view and subsisting: the anxiety and comfort between partners on 'Falling Down The Stairs Of Your Smile' is potent, as is the weary burnout on 'Dreamlike and On The Rush' that's still trying to make a mark in history; and in both searching for direction on 'You Need A Backseat Driver', sealing one's reckless moment on 'Opening Ceremony', and tiredly acknowledging the cyclical nature of history on 'Leather of the Seat' are canny observations; necessities for an album that feels constantly on the move. But it's also a project that feels like it's pulled many of its punches - it'll keep moving and its head down as the survival tactic but never quite seizes the day or ratchets up the gear, a little too prim to be revolutionary. Now again, some of this might a factor of my attitude leaning more on the SHREDDERS side of the spectrum, and I'm not going to deny the accessibility and wisdom of this method, because it's worked... but for a band that seems to acknowledge that this time the storm feels more precarious, you keep expecting to hear a breaking point either in text or production and it never quite comes.

Granted, some of that would be inevitable with the shift in production and instrumentation, which might be best described as a return to a modern conventionally structured power pop sound in comparison with the harder synth rock tones that drove their last two albums, augmented by dramatic strings brought in by their new violinist Simi Stone. And with a continued focus on momentum and groove and the fact the band can stack vocal harmonies pretty consistently, even if the mixing can feel muddy across those vocals and cymbals, means that it's hard for me to dislike a lot of these songs, even if the sparkle or edge of the mix feels muted. I really like how the darker minor rattles transition into a much brighter melody across 'You'll Need A Backseat Driver', I love the thickness of the bass that drives that song and the watery tune around 'Falling Down The Stairs Of Your Smile', and the sweeping synth-strings flourishes of 'Colossus Of Rhodes' with its pummeling groove is one of the most dramatic moments on the project. And the album ends well taking those same synth-strings across the internal change-ups of 'Leather On The Seat', although I place a lot more credit there on Neko Case's range as a singer. And while 'Need Some Giants' does feel like a retread of power pop melodies Case already pushed on 'Bad Luck' from Hell-On last year, especially with those backing vocals, it is pretty sticky, even if the hook sounds runny. And that really is the larger issue with this project: drippy tones that just don't have that same punch even if the melodies are there, and it takes away from the tightness that has been this band's hallmark: the choice of guitars on 'Higher Beams', the acoustics that bizarrely give no warmth to the watery effects around 'Opening Ceremony', the weirdly hollow mixing across 'You Won't Need Those Where You're Going', and the cluttered blending of guitars and keyboards on 'One Kind Of Solomon' which might have a great bridge, but doesn't have a good harmony for that hook. I guess the larger problem is that while the percussion and grooves cut through with real sharpness, the melodies can feel overmixed or unbalanced, and that does hurt a significant swath across the middle of the album.

But as a whole... look, I like this, and I'm even willing to say as a whole this album is slightly better than Whiteout Conditions... but the more listens I gave it the more I was convinced I just couldn't call it great. And what's more frustrating is that it feels like an album that was just a few tentative steps from really getting there but pulled back from really pushing through, instrumentally and lyrically. Don't get me wrong, I still think this is really good, and it's getting a solid 7/10 from me... but greatness was possible here and considering we're on our second project extrapolating driving metaphors, I'd like to hear The New Pornographers leading that convoy again, that's all.

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