In Brief: A.C. Newman is guilty of pushing words around, and I wish I could be an accomplice. Make of that what you will.
To listen to the music of A. C. Newman is to be invited into an imaginary world. Not your typical sort of imaginary world with dragons and sorcerors or robots and spaceships, but the kind where words themselves are pulled and stretched, chosen more for the value of their alliteration or rhyme rather than their meaning in logically constructed sentences. It’s also a world in which the musicians are savvy but the performances are un-fussy – in every jangly guitar riff, every exuberant background vocal, and every excited crash of the cymbals, there seems to be a dedication to just let it sound as ramshackle as it comes out, with little need to add bells and whistles on top of any of it. In that sense, Newman’s approach brings to mind his day job, Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers – who I had the good fortune of being introduced to by way of Newman’s solo career. The sunny, 60’s-styled power pop melodies are similar, but the approach is a little less experimental and a little more tightly focused, since it’s the consistent work of one songwriter rather than a trade-off between two or three singer/songwriters with notably different styles. It’s a subtle difference, to be truthful, but it’s one that raises the bar for Newman compared to what I’ve heard from the New Pornos so far.
It’s hard to tell if Newman’s second solo disc, Get Guilty, is meant to have its meaning unraveled, if it’s full of sly social commentary or obliquely stated melancholy emotions, or what sort of beast it is. There’s barely a single song here that I could hope to interpret – occasionally I get a glimpse of a song’s premise, but can’t quite figure out what it might be an analogy for. Even the album title is something I could play around with for days – is Get Guilty a command to become culpable? A suggestion to obtain a criminal record? A plea to understand sin? Who knows? And honestly, when the music’s this good, who cares? While Newman knows when a song requires a more tender approach, he’s mostly interested in brashly stated rock & roll, which isn’t show-offy or glammed-up, but which is largely a lot of fun. There’s not a bad track on the record, or even a middling one. Get Guilty is a sonic joy ride from end to end. The only thing that keeps this album from full five-star greatness would be the lack of a song or two that I can point to as a landmark, a true standout that makes me go, “Wow, this song is amazing!” It all ranges from “pretty good” to “very good”, and while this is an accomplishment in itself, it might be Newman’s dedication to non-meaning (or perhaps deeply disguised meeting) that keeps a number of these songs at arms’ length on a more emotional level.
1. There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve
And the eyes, they were a color I can’t remember
Which says more than the first two verses
And it is the devil you know that will slam the door harder
Make of that what you will…
The first song is a lot of banging around interspersed with moments of calm – drums and cymbals crash excitedly on every beat during the refrain, making it feel like the song is stumbling around drunk, knocking things over, and yet trying to compose itself and present something orderly. Newman’s lyrics are similarly addled – he comes out sounding like he’s going to offer some great bit of advice or wisdom only to throw us for a loop when he remarks, “That wasn’t the opening line – it was the tenth or the twelfth. Make of that what you will.” But dude, you just started the song, and… never mind. It’s fun because it’s contrary. Little bits of piano and plucked string add musical depth to the calmer parts of the song. It’s a great example of how amusing Newman’s music can be even when he’s intentionally dodging to the left or right as soon as we think we’ve got a handle on any sort of valid interpretation.
2. The Heartbreak Rides
California adds some casual bedlam
Something in the basic swing of things led them
To victimless crimes, the heartbreak climbs…
Soft electric piano and the steady, gentle thumping of drums give us a false impression of this song being a ballad at first, especially due to Newman’s melodic falsetto. You start to realize something’s up when his tale of a heartbroken hitchhiker who just wants to get to Los Angeles as possible starts to build up with the steady strumming of an acoustic guitar and a chorus which dares to say nothing but the words “Yo-ho” over and over. (Is that just meaningless syllables that sound good? Is he becoming a pirate? Or is he greeting a prostitute?) Before long, you’re hooked by a catchy musical refrain with more insistent, pounding drums, and a joyous flute on top of it all. This one worms its way into the brain – catchiest thing on the album, and there’s a lot of competition in that department.
3. Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer
Like a fourth wall, cop chase on blue screen
All eyes roll, all eyes roll
Like a snowfall that blankets a city
Swallowed whole, swallowed whole…
This song’s main hook is its drum cadence, which is shoved right out at you from the get-go – it’s all wooden and rickety and made to sound like the drummer was banging on whatever chairs or wooden items happened to be within reach. The start-stop acoustic guitar strum contributes a lot to the song’s momentum, and there’s a repetitive nature to the way Newman sings every second line of the song twice, and even contradicts himself in the chorus with two similar lines: “Like a changed man, but not a changed man.” What hitman and dancers have to do with each other, I have no idea, but despite that, this one’s another winner, right up to its sudden, middle-of-a-riff ending. (Are we hitman or are we dancer? Yeah, I know, stupid joke. I couldn’t resist a potshot at The Killers.)
I was a silent partner for once
And I had been split into two sections
Here is my heart and here is my song
There are too many prophets here…
The prominent use of tambourine actually adds a lot to the “surreal hippie party” atmosphere of some of these songs – Newman’s percussionist is nothing if not elated, as are his background vocalists, but there’s a simplicity to the way it’s all played and song despite how many beats and words might be crammed in there. Piano and acoustic guitar give this one a similarly unassuming opening until it cascades into another amusingly contradictory chorus, which finds the background singers repeating “One by one by one by one”, only to then insist, “Strike on zero”. This is a bit like Fleet Foxes attempting to sing a nonsense song written by The Flaming Lips for an episode of The Muppet Show.
5. Submarines of Stockholm
He’s somewhere else
You have the luxury of B-sides…
I’ve always hated when reviewers use the word “rollicking” – it basically means “playful, carefree, or boisterous”, but it seems to be an all-purpose descriptor for anything with vaguely fun energy. Nonetheless, this song has driven me to use it for the first time, because I find myself splitting the word into “roll” and “lick”, and realizing that there’s plenty of both – a rolling rhythm of 6/8 and an insistent, one-note lick from the electric guitar lick. This all spells trouble, and it’s as if Newman and his gang are taunting us with the insistent “la la la la”s in this song’s refrain. Newman’s a bit uppity here, giving out orders like “Stop twisting your words into shapes” and “Forget yourself” ans basically playing the unhinged commander of some naval vessel on its way to Sweden. (Why Stockholm? Is this a reference to Stockholm Syndrome? Has he got a crew of prisoners coerced into hanging on his every word? Uh-oh, now my imagination’s running away with me.) There’s an intriguing refrain about “A series of highlights and holy lows”, whatever that means. If he’s referring to his own music, then he’s only half-accurate.
We used to ride thunderheads
We rode them around the bend
You don’t need those glasses
But you just look so good in them…
The band finally pulls on the reins for this slower, more ominous song, with its careful, steady drums and an electric guitar ticking away like seconds on a clock. This is the song where Newman tries to fool you into thing it’s over about ten times before it really is, creeping back in every time with that same steady rhythm. He and his cronies pretend they’re a pantheon of Greek gods here, who used to delight in striking people with thunderbolts, only to get bored with it, and uh… they got old? I’m getting lost at the chorus, which repeats “They let you, let you ride” over and over. Maybe the gods have gone soft and are tired of hurling fiery judgment at people? Your guess is as good as mine. Listen for those woodwinds that sneak into the song near the end, though. Those are fun.
7. The Palace at 4 AM
You’re asking for the book to be thrown down
It opens with a thud
With the dumb luck that wasn’t blind
Kicking around in the promised land…
We’re back to the fast-paced jangle-pop with this song, which is all about another quick, rolling 6/8 rhythm and a bit of jaunty piano and another one of the album’s “stickier” melodies. I can’t say that you’ll find much to sing along with here other than chiming in with all of the “ba ba ba”s and so forth coming from the background singers. But the phrase “no more pushing words around” is an insistent one that shows up several times. It’s almost as if Newman is playing his own critic, calling for a “straight shot” and commanding himself to just say what he means for a change. Aw, but that’d be no fun!
8. The Changeling (Get Guilty)
It’s not war, it’s more like a warning
There with front row tickets to the public burning
Found in the strip search
The skins have beaten the shirts…
If Newman had a song that best summed of his approach to songwriting, this would be it. It jerks and sways, led by almost childlike piano chords to a carnival-like chorus that erupts in cries of “change your mind!” and just feels like a boyish taunt in general. It’s all about being contrary and difficult and basically a class clown – “I will die with my foot in my mouth”, he remarks at one point, and offers the nonsense command that inspired the album’s title “Get guilty, kid! Get guilty, go! With the same cruel sense of humor that you came with.” It makes me smile, because it’s devious and yet subtle at the same time.
It’s not my way, true
To show best side for you
I fought my way through
To the west side for you…
This would be the one song that always seems to slip through the cracks in my memory whenever I think through the tracks on the album and try to pick out the highlights. It might have something to do with being one in a series of four songs that are all in 6/8 time and have a similar, loose, tongue-twisting feel to them. There’s a different cadence to this one with the last triplet of each set of four being emphasized by the tambourine in a way that “pushes” the song effortlessly into the next verse or chorus. An organ gurgles in the background and there are more of the playful flutes and “hippie gang” background vocals that Newman has utilized throughout the album. There’s even a subtle but effective guitar solo in the middle of it. If this is the worst that Get Guilty has to offer (and by “worst”, I mean merely a “good song”), then I think that speaks well of the entire album.
10. Young Atlantis
Way down in the land of twins
We tell ourselves apart like this
By clues we leave, the things that breathe
Down at the bottom of the sea…
This ballad is probably the closest thing to a “serious song” that you’d find on this record. That might just be because of its slow tempo (a kinder, gentler rhythm of 6/8), the strains of cello here and there, and a tune which can only be described as melancholy. (The melody and chord progression actually remind of “One More Girl” by The Wreckers, though this one’s not nearly as despairing.) The lyrics are still a bunch of riddles and double-speak, but there’s a nagging sense of loss that gnaws at the listener here, particularly in a brief moment of transparency when Newman confesses, “Yes, I loved you, blue.” The electric guitar gets to play the major dramatic role here, offering up a vaguely majestic melody after each chorus to counteract the background vocalists’ “Aaaaah”s that threaten to drag a beautiful melody into the deep blue depths of hopelessness. It’s all very lovely in its vague sense of sadness.
11. The Collected Works
Then you arrive with an impact rivaling science
Sealed, delivered, a gift to the magi sign
To my old friend anew, who dropped in recently
Unexpected from the collected works of excess…
Alright, enough navel-gazing – it’s time to close the record by raising a ruckus. This one’s another good use of the start-stop dynamic and Newman’s uncanny ability to jerk the listener around with a fun rhythm. Every instrument, from the rattling drums and tambourines to the pounding piano to the upstart flute, seems to only speak in exclamation marks here. Since I don’t know what one might expect from “the collected works of excess”, I can’t say why Newman sounds so frustrated or insistent on ratting out the individual or group or thing that ticks him off so much here. But it doesn’t matter. This song is pure attitude, and I enjoy it for that.
12. All of My Days and All of My Days Off
The sun showers outside, and I’ve found something in the swing here
An idea whose time had come
And thunderbolts will strike where they may, like a drunken master
Like an idea whose time had come…
The final song is like crawling back out into the sunlight and learning to love life again. Whatever’s got Newman on the upbeat, it’s contagious as he sings of some sort of epiphany that leads him to declare with almost religious fervor, “And now I give you all my days, and all of my days off.” Man, with the background vocals chiming in on that happy little chorus, this almost feels like something The Polyphonic Spree might come up with (or at least if you took about twenty instruments away from them). It’s a perfectly sunny, 60’s-inspired note to go out on, which is why repeating that chorus is the perfect way for this album to fade to a close.
The 12 songs on this album all have the same basic ingredients to them, which is why for several of the “rockers”, I had to dig a bit to pick out the little musical quirks or extraneous instruments that made each one unique. For someone who isn’t as captivated by sunny “early rock & roll” sorts of melodies or quirky lyrics, I could actually imagine Get Guilty seeming a bit monotonous. But I’m hearing a disc packed with mostly winners, one which grabs the ear almost immediately, but rewards the careful listening for little musical and lyrical nuggets that accentuate the individual songs. That’s the key to success when (presumably) your intent in making music is to communicate a feeling or an aesthetic more so than a tangible meaning. A. C. Newman is good at this, and despite his relatively simple musical approach, he’s probably going to nab one of the top spots in my year-end “best albums” list. What can I say? Sometimes great things come in unassuming packages.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve $1
The Heartbreak Rides $1.50
Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer $1.50
Submarines of Stockholm $1.50
The Palace at 4 AM $1.50
The Changeling (Get Guilty) $1
Young Atlantis $1.50
The Collected Works $1
All of My Days and All of My Days Off $1
Originally published on Epinions.com.