The New Pornographers – Challengers

July 11, 2007

They say that Challengers is the New Pornographers’ most ‘mature’ release yet. I suppose this makes sense if your vision of a ‘mature’ sound consists of songs that are – there is no other way to say this – just plain boring: less energetic and more contemplative, high on reflective repetition and low on the ornate frenzy that the Pornographers have become known for.

All this talk about New Porn and ‘maturity’ actually worries me a bit. That word has been bandied about so much lately when talking about the Pornographers, its constant and repeated use apparently signifying that the band have finally come into its own as a musical force, fulfilling the promise of their early work. But ‘mature’ for New Porn is not the same as ‘mature’ for other bands. When Twin Cinema came out, it was called ‘mature’ because it took their jangly, unfettered pop to whole new levels, filling out their sound and demonstrating a new variety in their songwriting. And yes, this did mean some more slow songs, but that wasn’t the heart of Twin Cinema‘s maturity. The maturity in Twin Cinema was an ability to seamlessly mix the calm with the frenetic, and to boldly march out the killer melody lines while keeping the soundscape soft and settled when called for by the song. Yet because the tempo of songs is the most obvious difference between Twin Cinema and the previous Mass Romantic and Electric Version, it seems as if everyone has equated ‘maturity’ and ‘seriousness’ with slow, ploddingly contemplative songs.

Well, if that’s maturity, then Challengers is certainly a product of adulthood. The album sounds as if the Pornographers read all those reviews of Twin Cinema and then decided, “Hey guys, let’s make a REALLY mature-sounding album by writing lots of quiet, contemplative songs inspired by our life experiences!”, forgetting that loads of gentle, dainty acoustic strums do not an album make.

This approach doesn’t merely fail on the album level either. In fact, what makes Challengers so incredibly frustrating is that every song has the potential to be an amazing showstopper tune. There are great riffs embedded in almost every track, but instead of unleashing them to fulfill their full primal glory, primary songwriter Carl Newman simply deploys them as endlessly cycling riffs that rotate and grind away beneath melodies with no direction and no climax.

Take for example “The Old Showstoppers”, the album’s second track – it seems primed for success at the beginning, with a riff that ranks among the Pornographers’ catchiest while still maintaining a unique, almost Western sensibility, but the song never takes that tense energy anywhere. Eventually the catchy riff switches off to a chorus that fails to strike the listener or appeal in any way, and by the time the riff returns, it’s a tired sound that only tells the listener that this song has no place else to go. The 3.5-minute title track, “Challengers”, offers a simple, pretty tune that would have worked much better on a track half that length, and even “Myriad Harbour”, the album’s most fun and electic song (though maybe that’s only because it sounds a little too similar to the Pixies’ “I Bleed”), only manages to rouse itself for a couple of stanzas before slumping back into a groove that is entirely too settled. In fact, “My Rights Versus Yours” and “Mutiny, I Promise You” are the only songs that have anything resembling a build-up of energy and tension, but even those level off about halfway through and rest at a lazy crest for the remainder of the tracks.

None of this is a slight to the band, which is plugging away with as much proficiency as ever – tight harmonies, steady guitars, and beautiful pop vocals. The trouble is that these songs just give them nowhere to go. It’s almost heartbreaking to hear all these elements being steadily layered on in the hopes of creating a full aural atmosphere, only for all the parts to sink into a malaise of sound with no direction or purpose.

If nothing else, the lyrics seem to have improved, but I have to admit that even this is somewhat of a disappointment. While it’s nice to see some poetics of substance (especially on “Myriad Harbour” and “Unguided”, Dan Bejar and Carl Newman’s respective odes to New York City), the sheer joy of Newman’s nonsensical word pudding on the previous albums was part of what made the New Pornographers such fun to listen to. The lyrics still work (especially on “Unguided” and “Adventures in Solitude”, among the best of the explicitly reflective tracks), concocting a sense of wonder and adventure unique to the Pornographers style, but that old glee is missing. Sure, it’s mature, but it’s also weary, and weary does not suit the Pornographers well.

You’re less liable to notice all this if you listen to the album by itself, but in light of New Porn’s past achievements, this album is a disappointment. It’s frustrating to me, as a huge fan of the band; I wanted desperately to love this album, and the listening experience was only made worse by the fact that everywhere I looked I could catch the edges of little diamonds of incredible pop riffs and musical moments peering out, wanting nothing more than to escape the mud that obscured them. Challengers is pleasant to listen to and even moving at times, but it’s a frustrating step back for the band from their Twin Cinema glory.

We thought we lost you,” croon Newman and Kathryn Calder in “Adventures to Solitude.” “We thought we lost you. Welcome back.” Here’s hoping that on the Pornographers’ next outing, we can say the same to them.


MP3: The New Pornographers – Myriad Harbour
MP3: The New Pornographers – Unguided

posted by ninjajabberwocky


5 Responses to “The New Pornographers – Challengers”

  1. Nutstoyou Says:

    Sounds like you let your first impression colour your whole listening experience. It might not rock for as long as the other records, but for me, i’m finding new things to like about it every day.
    You wouldn’t be the first reviewer of this record to change their mind a week later…..
    Give ‘er another spin. Or don’t…. but someday you’ll be mature, and adult too, and maybe it’ll sound better then.

  2. dermoth Says:

    “You’re less liable to notice all this if you listen to the album by itself, but in light of New Porn’s past achievements, this album is a disappointment. It’s frustrating to me, as a huge fan of the band;”

    Yep – thought so.

    What you’ve done here is review how the album fails to meet your expectations, not review the actual record yourself. Essentially, you can boil this review down to four words – “it’s not Twin Cinema”.

    My initial reactions on hearing the album were much the same as yours, but then again, so were my initial reactions on hearing the early leak of My Rights Versus Yours, and it took me all of a day to realise how spectacularly wrong about that track. Similarly, my first listen to Challengers was spent with my head in my hands…

    …but, at the same time, I was remembering how I felt about MRVY. And countless other NP songs that left me cold on the first listen, and rapidly developed into lifelong favourites. I just wasn’t sure how the songs on Challengers were going to acheive that trick.

    Probably a similar experience to yours, yes? The thing is, this is the point where you seem to have written your review. Three, maybe four listens? It was a mistake. Unless you’re genuinely incapable of appreciating music that you consider to be distance-quotes-mature, you’re going to quickly realise that this is an extremely strong album.

    Ah, well.

  3. wayneRI Says:

    i guess that i have to agree with the previous post and say that this reviewer has a bad case of Twin Cinema hangover. That said, for a band that has had 4.. count ’em 4.. albums in seven years it’s hard to say that their style is set in stone and that this latest album has underachieved.

    to me, this excellent new album is all part of the NP experience and you’ll have to try really hard to say that my rights versus yours, showstoppers, challengers, myriad harbour, unguided, go places, failsafe, mutiny, etc. aren’t worthy additions to the NP expanding ouevre.

    but i will say this, to me the NP’s are a band best enjoyed live.. i’ll never forget the first time i heard bleeding heart show and testament to youth in verse live.. amazing harmonies and driving rock that brought the audience along for the ride. i just know that the first time i hear unguided live it’ll be the same way.

    this type of music and this level of commitment and musicianship to artistic quirky power pop is hard to find and a wonder to behold. i hope that challengers is the breakthrough album that it deserves to be….

  4. xenios Says:

    i just stumbled across this, and i have to say…you’re a fucking retard

  5. Old Man Says:

    The semantics of “mature” aside, I think CHALLENGERS is an incredible album – challenging the listener both musically and lyrically. You can’t fault a band for being “mature” – whether you determine that is because of said ‘listening to review’ is pretty subjective…the end result is a fine album with some really strong tracks – and also better production, which, though “un-indie” showcases their talent more.
    – Old Man at The Old Shack Review

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