Artist: The New Pornographers
Album: In the Morse Code of Brake Lights
In Brief: This album brings back some of the sonic diversity that Whiteout Conditions lacked, especially with violinist Simi Stone upgraded to full membership. But song-for-song, it just doesn’t hit nearly as hard, and I think part of the problem is that despite all the singers in this band, we’re really only hearing the artistic voice of Carl Newman. No longer having Dan Bejar around kind of exposes his limitations as full-time band leader.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” That statement might be a tired old cliche, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind as I listen to the eighth studio album from The New Pornographers, a band that has now officially acknowledged the departure of one of its core members, while inducting someone new into the lineup as well. The band has been making deviously catchy and inscrutably tongue-twisting power pop songs for nearly two decades now, and they proved as recently as 2017’s Whiteout Conditions that they could still entertain me a great deal by offering more or less the same shtick they always had. So what’s with this new album of theirs, and why isn’t very much of it standing out to me?
A little backstory for those who don’t follow this band or who simply haven’t kept up – Dan Bejar is now acknowledged as a “former, and possibly future” member of The New Pornographers, in what sounds like the most amicable split a fan could hope for, if such a thing had to happen at all. He had been there since the very beginning, taking over the lead vocal to showcase a song he wrote roughly every three or four tracks on each of their albums, up through 2014’s Brill Bruisers. Those songs often acted as an even weirder and more sinister counterpoint to whatever bandleader Carl Newman had cooked up, and despite the fact that nearly everyone in the band was involved with some other band or solo project where they wrote their own material, Newman and Bejar were pretty much the only songwriters whose material made it into a New Pornographers album, so with Bejar gone, it’s pretty much all Newman compositions, despite whoever might be singing lead (or sharing the lead, more likely) at any given moment. This wasn’t a problem per se on Whiteout Conditions, which was their first album Bejar had no involvement in, because Newman and co. decided to go for broke and deliver a consistently up-tempo record with only a few breather tracks, and while it might have been a bit samey from track to track in a few places, it was a fun little blast of energy that kept me intrigued; definitely one of that year’s best. Now that it’s 2019 and they’ve put out yet another album in a relatively short period of time (at least compared to the typical three to four year gap that separated their previous albums), I’m hearing a lot more mid-tempo material, even some slow stuff, definitely the sort of more diversified pacing you’d hear on a typical album of theirs, but without Bejar there to change things up every so often, unfortunately a lot of Newman’s material ends up fading into the background.
The band’s newest member, who is in no way intended to replace or even serve in a similar role to Bejar, is Simi Stone. She had been touring with the band for a while, providing violin and backing vocals, and for this record they’ve decided to include her as an official member. You can hear it in the string embellishments that pop out on a few of these songs, though I wouldn’t say that she’s a strong creative presence in the band yet. While I like the new flavor that having a full-time violinist provides, you can still tell that these are Newman songs, though and through, despite the window dressing. If she sings lead anywhere here, her voice must be so similar to those of Neko Case and Kathryn Calder that I genuinely can’t tell. That may be intentional, since Calder was first brought on as a touring member to ease the burden on Case when there was a conflict with her solo touring and recording schedule, so you already have two somewhat similar voices there, and Stone may have originally been brought in for a similar purpose. It’s just weird to me now that you have no less than four people trading off vocals on a New Pornographers album, three of them women, and yet the void left by Bejar apparently didn’t leave any room for something written by any of the three to make its way onto an album. I don’t mean to accuse Newman of being a control freak or of dismissing the talents of his female colleagues, because I have no idea how the democratic process in this band works, whether people collaborate to shape tracks in the studio in a way that doesn’t grant them actual songwriting credits, etc. It’s just bugged me for a while that Case hasn’t contributed lyrics to a New Pornos album since their debut, and Calder never has at all, and both of these women are formidable artists in their own right. Now I have one more member of the band to feel that way about, whose voice is essentially a mouthpiece for whatever Newman dreams up. It’s not wrong… it’s just weird.
Have I not mentioned the title of this new album yet? It’s In the Morse Code of Brake Lights. It’s a bit wordy, and reflective of the fact that cars are a central theme in many of these songs, I guess – but it doesn’t seem likely to be a title that I’m going to look back and have a strong memory of, in terms of its ability to unify a set of songs whose tone, quality, and consistency are pretty much all over the place. I’ll give a lot of credit to the band’s rhythm section because there are a few moments on this record where the drums and bass really pop, where the band seems to find a groove unlike anything I can remember them trying in the past. There are at least three songs here that I think I’ll go on to consider New Pornos classics when all is said and done, because I feel like those are the ones that match the group’s knack for clever pop hooks in a way that is uniquely them with some genuinely new ideas. But they’re all stacked up early in the album, and once they’re over, the listening experience becomes a bit of a hodgepodge and I’m tempted to tune out. Since this album runs a pretty standard length of 11 songs, and in the past I’ve been able to throw on much longer albums of theirs such as Brill Bruisers or their all-time best work Twin Cinema and not get bored despite the presence of one or two dodgier tracks, I’m left to wonder if Newman should really be shouldering the band’s creative burdens entirely on his own. Especially if a record’s going to jump around as much as this one does without really sticking to an identity… would it really hurt to have some different voices in the mix? Not just singing voices, but actual words from anyone else in the band? (Even wishing for the good old days when Bejar contributed doesn’t help me much here, as he’s credited with a co-write on one song here, and it’s not a particularly memorable one.)
Now to give credit where it’s due, I first discovered Newman’s oblique, playful, and subversively sassy style of writing on his 2009 solo record Get Guilty, and that was obviously a record entirely penned by him, so it’s not like I think the guy is a subpar songwriter. Much as I may find the overall message of his songs to be deliberately obscured in the wordplay, there are a lot of lines that will hit me out of nowhere and make me think, “Heh, that’s a clever little bait and switch” or “Wow, that was actually, unironically profound.” He has his moments on this album, to be sure. It’s similar to how I feel about the Barenaked Ladies after Steven Page‘s departure (even though Page was definitely seen as that band’s lead, while Bejar has always been more of a right-hand man in the context of The New Pornos), with Ed Robertson taking over nearly all of the creative duties. Their better albums since then have given other members of the band a chance to shine on songs they contributed, and their worse ones have served as evidence that Robertson isn’t quite up to the task of delivering consistently strong material all on his own. Newman is worlds away from Robertson where his songwriting style is concerned, but the two men have that quality in common – they’re good at what they do when they’re not stretched too thin. I hate to keep harping on that point, but it’s the one thing I keep coming back to on In the Morse Code of Brake Lights – we could have gotten better material from him if he’d known when to hand over the reins and let another creative mind take the lead.
1. You’ll Need a New Backseat Driver
I belatedly realized that the opener is quite a killer tune. I was drawn in right away by the plucked strings at the beginning, an incredibly meaty bass line from John Collins, and the dominant presence of the female vocalists (to the point where, much like a lot of the tracks on Whiteout Conditions, I’m not clear on exactly who is singing “lead” or whether such a thing even matters). I had to take a deeper look at the lyrics to understand how this one set up the album’s theme (as it were) and how it might have been burying something much more sinister in a metaphor about tailgating a family on a road trip. That’s my best guess at what’s going on as the observer in the car behind the family tries to deduce from the pattern of their brake lights what message a captive in the car might be trying to send. “You’re set free, or you get my love”, seems to be the threat coming from the driver, while the kid in the backseat retorts “You can’t make me; I won’t do this.” The observer can’t seem to come up with much of a response other than to flippantly ask, “So what do you for fun around here?” The chorus is easily one of the album’s most memorable, as it’s just two lines, but they drip with bitter irony: “If you’re going to travel and never arrive there/You’ll need a backseat driver.” Unruly children trying to tell their parents what to do in the car are often referred to pejoratively as “backseat drivers”, so if there’s a larger metaphor in play here, I’m guessing it has to do with questions of who really has authority and who’s in control. And that’s all I’ve got for this one!
2. The Surprise Knock
Whenever The New Pornos do an upbeat song in 6/8, I’m reminded of classics like “Use It” and “Your Hands (Together)” that pretty much codify everything I’ve come to expect from this band in terms of power pop goodness. More recently they seem to have developed an affinity for sampling vocal snippets and using those as a hook, which this song does much better with Neko and Kathryn’s “Ah-ah-ah”s than the previous album did on the somewhat awkward “Second Sleep”. The one thing dragging this one down in the pure, unadulterated fun department is that its chorus seems to cut itself off early, much like “My Rights Versus Yours” from Challengers did. It’s kind of an anti-climax to get there, after all the intrigue in the verses about being “inside the C4” – a distressing metaphor if I’ve ever heard one. The title gets dropped, there’s a “sur-PRISE knock-ON your-DOOR” (yeah, that’s how Newman emhpasizes the syllables here), a neat little drum roll, then it repeats. So we never really find out who’s behind that surprise knock, but if I had to guess, it’s probably some shadowy government agency who picked up all that chatter about explosives.
3. Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile
The album’s lead single was definitely a grower. It was the first single I’d heard from the band in a while that didn’t take off running at full speed, instead establishing more of a relaxed groove, with some snappy drums, chill keyboards, and another meaty bass line. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have guessed this was The New Pornographers until the vocals kicked in and made it super-obvious, what with Carl and the ladies (primarily Kathryn, but I think they’re all in there somewhere) trading off the lead in different sections of the song. He apparently got the idea for this one by realizing how many pop songs were called “_____ of Your Love” or “_____ of Your Smile”, and he basically combined those ideas to describe the kind of falling in love that gives you vertigo and sends you tumbling. Whether that’s a good experience or a terrible one is up to your interpretation, I guess, but I’m picking up on a bit of a “backhanded compliment” sort of attitude here that gives me a hint it’s not exactly a wholesome relationship they’re describing. “You look just like a starmaker/That is not like a star/And it looked good on paper/That is the cruelest part/So look alive, it’s much cheaper/The dead have expensive taste/The lookalikes found their way here/It’s you they want to replace.” Yikes. Those lyrics don’t exactly instill confidence in a potential lover, do they? This may be more about celebrity than romance, though – the delicate art of trying to sell a person’s image by tweaking them to make them more like what the public wants to see, then giving them a not-so-subtle down the nearest staircase when the next pretty thing comes along. That’s a pretty cynical take on an otherwise enjoyable song, but I’m sticking to it.
4. Colossus of Rhodes
Wait, didn’t The New Pornos already do a song about this? No wait, that was “Colosseums” off of the last albums. I’m getting my Greco-Roman architecture all mixed up! New-ish drummer Joe Seiders proves his mettle here once again with a pretty epic drum beat, while Simi Stone’s violin comes swooping up through the mix again and again. It’s an exhilarating way to start off a song that proves to be pretty thrilling all along, with Neko’s brassy confidence leading the way, even as she’s describing the experience of being robbed. “We’ve had break-ins before”, she keeps reminding us, but something about this particular one seems to have shaken her confidence, much as she might try to assure us the house hasn’t been completely stripped of all its valuables. I’m guessing that what this has to do with the titular wonder of the world is that the Colossus statue signified the Greek’s belief that Rhodes harbor was unassailable and they could hold off any raiding parties looking to plunder or destroy it. Eventually the statue was toppled; what was once a symbol of impenetrable security is now a mere memory with no trace of it remaining, to the point where historians don’t even agree on where exactly it was located. The sheer force and speed of this song (which I’m betting is gonna be one hell of a concert highlight) seems to suggest that the robbery happened with such power and precision that there was no warning and it left the occupant feeling rather violated.
5. Higher Beams
The fact that my attitude about this album in the intro seemed rather “meh”, and yet I’ve had mostly positive things to say about the first four songs, probably had you anticipating that this record would fall off a cliff at some point. Well, here we are! I honestly can’t think of another New Pornographers song that has ambled along so slowly and awkwardly (seeming to deliberately skip a beat at times) and squandered so much potential in what I’m sure started out as a great lyrical idea. Here, Newman is singing about the way a lot of us have resigned ourselves to living in an oppressive system, a “culture of fear”, and how it’s basically inertia and an addiction to familiarity that keeps us from doing anything to change it. His most cutting line, “We’ve come to expect the trains on time”, is of course a reference to the infamous notion that the Germans back in the day accepted the horrors of the Nazi regime because at least things were efficient. (Turns out that wasn’t even something the Nazis got right – but that’s propaganda for you, and the modern-day parallels are startling.) This song could be a powder keg lying in wait to blow us all away… but it never really ignites even a solitary spark. I guess I could say that in terms of album lowlights, the band has had filler tracks on previous albums that have bored or mildly annoyed me, but this one’s not filler at all – it’s designed to stand out and it does so in the worst way possible. The keyboards just sort of gurgle along, the drums are doing nothing interesting (only serving to make it more obvious that Newman tried to shoehorn uneven lines of lyrics into 4/4 time) and what’s supposed to be a sassy chorus, in which the band repeatedly sings “Thank you, thank you for nothing!” falls flat. Even when they turns this around later on and it becomes “Fuck you for nothing!” (giving the band its first “Explicit” classification on a song in a good long while), it just doesn’t pop out with the sort of anger and frustration it’s probably supposed to – it’s just a gimmick, and a rather lazy one at that. I already disliked the song before that point, but now they’ve wasted a weapon that they rarely see fit to use, and I might just be convinced this is my least favorite New Pornographers song of all time. (Maybe let Neko have a go at this sort of thing? The lyrics on some of her solo work can be surprisingly abrasive at times, but she knows how to set up those f-bombs so that they leave a damn crater when they go off.)
6. Dreamlike and on the Rush
Now you can relax; there’s nothing else left on the album that I dislike as strongly as the previous track… but also nothing that I like as much as the first four tracks. The rest of the album is mostly the band trying to wriggle new ideas out of the sound we’ve more or less come to expect from them, without any overly memorable or disastrous results. This mid-tempo song mostly stands out to me for its strong drums and for Simi Stone doing her thing all over it with the violin. It seems like the one new song that she had the biggest hand in shaping, in a musical sense – the lyrics and basic melody are once again all Newman, though. As best I can tell, the lyrics are about someone who was all fired up with moral outrage, but directionless in their expression of it – head full of big dreams for changing the world, but not enough common sense to stop and think about the consequences of their actions, I suppose. Again, your interpretation may vary widely – I’ve spent a fair amount of effort trying to deduce what the phrase “on the rush” actually means, and the best I can figure is it’s an adrenaline rush, a rush from some illicit substance being used, or else “The Rush” is a very old term for being on the police force. That last one seems entirely unlikely, but every time I think I’ve nailed down a solid theory, Newman comes up with another cryptic line that threatens to sabotage it. I kind of like that about his style of songwriting in general, I guess, so this song’s alright.
7. You Won’t Need Those Where You’re Going
Ballads on a New Pornographers record are a tricky prospect. They can completely interrupt the flow at the worst possible time (see “The Bones of an Idol”, “Valkyrie in the Roller Disco” and a good portion of Challengers), or they can turn out to be highlights in the best possible way due to how they sneak up on the unsuspecting listener (see “The Bleeding Heart Show”, recently picked by fans on social media as the band’s most enduring song). Whiteout Conditions gave us the illusion of a ballad with “We’ve Been Here Before”, which subbed in a lot of reverb and synth effects in place of the drums but didn’t actually slow down the overall tempo of the record in any way, and I actually quite liked that track despite the weird approach. This track, on the other hand… it’s boring. It’s mostly just Newman and a piano. It’s the kind of thing you have to figure would make more sense on one of his solo albums. Not that it’s poorly written – I rather like its central metaphor about an up-and-coming filmmaker sabotaging their big breakthrough in favor of some artsy, obscure documentary that probably few people will watch. The last verse is my favorite: “Took some found footage from an unfinished man/Made a narrative leap through some sleight of hand/There will be buzz and heat when and if it’s shown/But you won’t need those where you’re going.” But what bugs me – aside from the fact that the “those” Newman refers to are completely different items/concepts in each verse – is the fact that “where we’re going” is never really defined. I’m reasonably confident that he’s vaguely riffing on the classic quote from Back to the Future where Doc Brown shows off the upgraded flying Delorean and declares, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” That’s an iconic moment, because we know they’re headed to the future. Best sequel hook EVER. This song isn’t worthy of the reference, because it goes nowhere and gives most of the band very little to do.
8. Need Some Giants
This song should be an anomaly in a good way. It’s the lone Dan Bejar co-write on the album, already an oddity because he’s no longer in the band (and thus I have to assume it’s an idea he was kicking around with them that failed to make it onto an earlier record), but then I consider the fact that Newman and Bejar didn’t really co-write much, and kind of left each other to their own devices for most of the band’s history (and thus I have to conclude Newman got Bejar’s blessing to take the unfinished idea and run with it in his absence). In terms of its pacing and its liberal use of “Ah-ah-ah-oh-ohs” and a ping-ponging lead vocal to spice things up a bit, it’s classic Newman. Normally I’d neither complain about nor gush about this sort of thing because it’s just business as usual for the New Pornographers. But then comes the chorus which Kathryn gets to sing, and it’s the most weak and muffled thing ever – almost an anti-hook. It takes the wind out of the sails in a way that the song can’t really recover from, no matter how much they might try to pump up our will to live by singing of encroaching assassins and the giants who are there to be all badass and fight them off for us. Newman has this occasionally tendency to sabotage his hooks, which is weird for a songwriter who deals mostly in power pop. It feels like he’s second-guessing himself, and it’s hella awkward to listen to.
9. Opening Ceremony
This is the track that I’d be most likely to describe as filler. Nothing particularly wrong with it – it’s just one of those more laid-back entries with straightforward acoustic guitar strumming, some nice but unobtrusive keyboards/synths, and a fairly repetitive melody. The only thing anyone in the band seems to be trying to do to make it stand out is Joe Seiders’ rat-tat-tat on the snare drum. Newman’s lyrics are labyrinthine as always, but he seems to be coming from a rather cynical standpoint regarding the practice of bands getting back together or things people used to love being “rebooted” for nostalgia’s sake. “Just sell it as opening ceremony”, he advises repeatedly in the chorus. I think there are some clever lyrics here – ” Never book your farewell tour unless the reunion is in the works” is a quotable line that definitely deserves to be in a better song. Betcha that one’ll come back to bite them if the band ever breaks up and later reunifies, though.
10. One Kind of Solomon
The title of this song made me chuckle when the single was first dropped, because I had literally just returned home from a group study on the Biblical character Solomon. I think that’s who Newman is writing about here, though he’s taking a bit of dramatic license with the story, as a sort of alternate character interpretation I guess. There’s some fun wordplay here – check the internal rhymes in the lines ” Solomon knew astronomy/Didn’t take Ptolemy to say the Pharisees got nothing on me” for just one example. In general, I love how Newman delivers the verses in a syncopated fashion – the words are borderline tongue-twisters and yet they spill out so naturally. Then we get to another one of those choruses that seems to abort itself before it can serve its purpose as a memorable hook – “Stranger every time I open up my eyes.” It just sort of clumsily folds back on itself, disregarding the strong rhythmic push that the song had going up until that point. Neko and Carl share lead vocals on that chorus, then she takes over for the bridge, and I don’t know – musically speaking, it feels like we’re dropping in ideas from two or three different songs here. Still, the verses are strong enough on their own that I still feel like this comes out miles ahead of everything else on the back half of this album.
11. Leather on the Seat
The New Pornos have had a pretty good track record with finales. The last two albums went for a “sprint across the finish line” sort of approach with “You Tell Me Where” and “Avalanche Alley” – the latter of which is easily one of my all-time favorites. And of course, I’ve raved more than once about Twin Cinema‘s bizarre but oh-so-addictive closer “Stacked Crooked”. The band’s closed with slower songs before, too, but this is the first time I can think of where the ending of the album just didn’t feel like an ending. It’s a mid-tempo song with a solid backbeat, once again heavy on the strings, and it ties neatly back into the theme of cars and transportation that has popped up time and again throughout the album. But it feels like an attempt at an anthem that doesn’t quite get there. Neko takes the lead vocal here, and she sounds as assured of herself as always, even while singing a song that seems to be about fate being stacked against her. Once again I think the problem is that Newman has put all of his eggs in a single basket – the articulate and intriguing verses of the song – and he’s sold the band a bit short with a lackluster chorus. The song also seems to fade out before it’s really ready to wrap up. My first time listening to the album, I knew there were eleven songs but had lost count somewhere around track 8 or 9, so I assumed I was on track 10 at this point and this was the mellower lead-in to the finale. So I was baffled when the album just sort of fizzled out here. I have no problems with the length of this album – it just needs to end on more of a definitive high note. The fact that it doesn’t – and the back half being a mild disappointment overall – is one of the reasons why I just don’t see In the Morse Code of Brake Lights being a New Pornographers album that I’m going to remember five or ten years out as a collection of songs that needs to be listened to from front to back.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
You’ll Need a New Backseat Driver $1.50
The Surprise Knock $1.25
Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile $1.50
Colossus of Rhodes $1.75
Higher Beams -$.50
Dreamlike and on the Rush $1
You Won’t Need Those Where You’re Going $.25
Need Some Giants $.50
Opening Ceremony $.50
One Kind of Solomon $1
Leather on the Seat $.75
Carl Newman: Vocals, guitar
Neko Case: Vocals
Kathryn Calder: Vocals, keyboards, guitar
Simi Stone: Vocals, violin
Todd Fancey: Lead guitar
John Collins: Bass
Blaine Thurier: Keyboards, synths
Joe Seiders: Drums, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: