Keys Open Doors: The New Pornographers’ Brill Bruisers

The band's new album is sincerely synthetic, every other instrument kept on its toes by keyboards in pursuit. It’s also the liveliest they’ve sounded in a decade.

September 3, 2014

Chris Randle is a writer from Toronto who has written for The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Comics Journal, Social Text, the Village Voice an...

Sometimes the joke overtakes the story. When the New Pornographers released their first album of jubilant power pop with Mass Romantic 14 years ago, they were frequently and facetiously described as a “supergroup,” despite every member’s non-renown beyond the Pacific Northwest. Neko Case wouldn’t reach the upper heights of the Billboard charts for another decade. Carl Newman was still the most recognizable guy in Zumpano. Dan Bejar had yet to record Streethawk: A Seduction or This Night or Your Blues, the Destroyer LPs that gained a certain following for their half-smile aloofness—let alone Kaputt, which found a much wider one when Bejar’s fey roué finally looked beauty in the eye. As various New Pornographers actually became kinda famous, Todd Scharpling’s music video for “Moves” giggled at the irony of it all with a ludicrous fake biopic: that Toronto skyline captioned “Canada, 1977,” band members snorting cocaine off pizza, a paranoid Bejar strumming his guitar gun in hand.

Given how distracted the band’s primary songwriters must be lately, and the playful brio animating their collaboration since the beginning, you appreciate the opportunity to fuck around every subsequent New Pornographers album gives them, that experimental sabbatical. Bejar has always used his share of each tracklist to write more direct melodies than his other work, restraining its brilliantly elastic phrasings, trying on different pop forms: “Myriad Harbour,” from 2007’s Challengers, is “New York, New York” sung by Peter Lawford rather than Sinatra. (“I walked into the local record store / And asked for an American music anthology / Sounds fun!”) When I saw one of the rare New Pornographers tours featuring Bejar, never a musician who strives to appear at ease onstage—even his voluminous hair tenses up beneath the lights—he wandered around on the periphery until called up to sing, sipping beers like a dad at the cottage.

The new Pornos album Brill Bruisers was preceded by another Bejar single, and the blithe synth-pop of “War On the East Coast” might be his most straightforward contribution yet. It assumes the nervy forward motion of “Life During Wartime” while dialing back that song’s underground anxiety to a persistent itch. Bejar plays the rake idly observing some revolution from a bullet-brushed nightclub: “Blondes, brunettes, paper jets / Star power, star power, the king bends over to smell a flower.” In the music video he navigates an urban warzone alongside Carl Newman like two blasé movie cops—too blasé, in fact, to bother singing any of his own lyrics, a task Newman lip-syncs with amusingly stagy commitment. It’s not the only piece of artifice they stitch into a flag. When Neko Case garbles a harmony midway through “Spidyr,” you can hear her mutter “fuck!” before picking it up again.

They may joke about it, but Brill Bruisers is sincerely synthetic. Together, the previous New Pornographers album, placed strings at the front of its arrangements, playing cellos like theatrical prop guitars. Brill Bruisers runs its many hooks through the keyboards of Blaine Thurier and Kathryn Calder, and the cybernetic implants must be working, because Newman et al sound more exuberant than they have in a decade. (Ever tempted by perversity, Bejar brings out his harmonica as well.) The new record is named for an outpost of industrial-scale music, one the band pays finer tribute with some cleverly specific songwriting. The opening title track throws hooks at you from the first second and never really stops, but it gets even more pleasantly disorienting when the harmonies go “bo-ba-ba-bo” instead of whichever other syllables you expected. The force and heft of Neko Case’s voice often daze everything in its path, like a sashaying hurricane. “Champions of Red Wine” allows her a quieter register, princely yet languid, offering to be vulnerable together.

“Marching Orders,” the other new Neko cut, just meanders. Archness can be Newman’s weakness as both arranger and lyricist—like nearly everybody else in ‘90s indie rock, the guy developed a taste for Malkmus-style obscurantism, though he has since written recognizable ballads. Mass Romantic’s “Letter from an Occupant” begins: “I’m told the eventual downfall / Is just a bill from the restaurant / You told me I could order the moon, babe / Just as long as I shoot what I want.” That was fine back when the New Pornographers would’ve brought a sense of abandon to Diamanda Galas songs; thrilling, actually. The words flickered and burnt as sung glossolalia. But the group has a median age in the forties now, disinclined to get by on momentum alone, and Newman can’t always sustain stately acoustic tempos. Happy, then, that Brill Bruisers contains more tracks like “Backstairs,” which conjures up synth tones one step behind the guitars, as if to keep every other instrument guessing. “There is another West, much wilder,” he warns, or marvels.

Chris Randle is a writer from Toronto who has written for The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Comics Journal, Social Text, the Village Voice and the Awl. Along with Carl Wilson and Margaux Williamson, he is one-third of the group blog Back to the World.