One of the challenges of reviewing an album like The New Pornographers’ latest, Brill Bruisers, is that older, more jaded critics will gloss over the meat and merit of the work and take on the project as a rally call. It’s pop music…with guitars! Vocal harmonies! A decent budget and distribution! These things, so often equated in the mind as some sort of shift in the popular music tide, are not. That allegiance to believing it is can cloud objectivity when just sitting down and listening to the songs, unfiltered, as they are.
I’m one of the many who truly locked with the band on their Twin Cinema album, and still think that is their high point. That said, the two records following, Challengers and Together, are good records in their own right. They are more introspective, more orchestrated, slower in tempo, but still show off a pop music intellect that few practicing the lost art today can match. The melodies seldom go where you expect them to, even though the patterns and musical through-line seldom jar the listener to shock. The group knows how to get to the destination in time, but always get you there via the more interesting route. The thought pattern, then, is how do you pair the sophistication they’ve accrued with those latter two releases and still bring back the snap of the earlier stuff, exemplified by Twin Cinema?
Brill Bruisers answers that question resoundingly. Opening the album over a bridge of sorts — the orchestrated nature of the title track makes it feel very close to Together‘s territories — the listener is not dropped cold into the river, but instead eased in. It isn’t until the second track, “Champions Of Red Wine”, where the changes become more evident. Neko Case has never sounded lovelier on a New Pornos song as she does here, and while there are synths percolating around her voice, they neither dominate nor disturb the insistent chug of drum and guitar that girds the song. A.C. Newman’s lyrics, all odd angles and misdirections, would likely translate into typically bland pop-rock tropes which is why, I assume, he prefers the indirect approach. It works.
The high points of the album are also some of its most aggressive. Just a step before being hard rock, “Backstairs” is impossibly anthemic. You would be hard pressed not to do a little fist-pumping in the mid-section buildup. “Dancehall Domine” finds that nice spot between aggression and fun as well. Dan Bejar contributes three tracks, one of which is “Spidyr”, a rewrite of “Spider”, his song from the Swan Lake album Enemy Mine. Of all the songs on the album, it is Bejar’s that veer closest to the new wave position. It’s a shift that has been occurring for a while, most notably on his Destroyer record Kaput. His vocals are on-point and never stray in the endearing way they once did on previous New Pornos outings. And there’s even a harmonica solo on one of his tracks.
Much has been made of Blaine Thurier’s synth dominance on the record. Rather than fearing the band has veered into electro to score top ten hits, think of it more like the early 1980s when instruments were able to coexist, before the Fairlight system got hungry and ate the guitarist, bassist, and drummer whole. Thurier’s keys may once have been tucked into corners for sonic padding, but on Brill Bruisers he gets to shape the mood of the tracks in a more direct way. With that in mind, this is not an exercise in thrashing around retro ideas to try to get people in their 40s to like them. This is not about “striking a blow to those kids with their bass drops and dubsteps, showing them what real music sounds like.”
Having just gone on about how much I enjoyed the record, I feel I must explain why I don’t think it tops previous efforts. Taking Twin Cinema into account, that was the point where they were coming into the highest point of notoriety in the U.S. That record was able to maintain the fidgety energy of Mass Romantic and The Electric Version while also expanding the palette. They could have it both ways, essentially. On later discs, with the focus so much sharper both within the songs and on them in a spotlight, they were now tied to expectations. You behave differently when the eyes of the world are upon you, so the two following records, Challengers and Together, were more mannered. Bejar’s “Jackie Dressed In Cobras” would not have fit on them. Likewise, it wouldn’t work on Brill Bruisers either. Those who are coming to the latest with expectation that this is a continuation of that first energetic wave may be temporarily put off.
Temporarily, but not permanently. It is nearly guaranteed that The New Pornographers’ charm will eventually win you over, and Brill Bruisers won’t have too much campaigning to do to get you there. It’s a welcome return that reflects pop music’s past but does not misappropriate it.