The New Pornographers are a baffling band. As a whole, they seem to far exceed the sum of their parts, creating an entirely new entity much like Voltron is constructed from robotic lions. Sure, the lions can be mighty warriors on their own, but really, when you need to get the job done, you have to combine forces and vanquish your foes. The New Pornographers are just that giant robot of modern rock. As much as I’ve tried to enjoy A.C. (“Carl”) Newman or Neko Case on their own (to be fair, it was well after discovering the New Pornographers), nothing really takes my breath away like the New Pornographers hitting all the right chords – and that’s what we get on Challengers.
Challengers is the fourth album by the New Pornographers, their third on the venerable Matador Records. Their debut on Matador, Electric Version was ridiculously brilliant and left high expectations for the follow up. Unfortunately, Twin Cinema didn’t really live up to it, at least for me. It was missing something, like it lacked the spark that songs like “The Slow Descent into Alcoholism,” “New Face of Zero and One,” and “From Blown Speakers” had. You can argue that Twin Cinema was more mature, that it developed songs that were more than just incredible pieces of pop, but I just didn’t connect with the album like I had with Mass Romantic or Electric Version, whether it was because the album just wasn’t up to snuff or just not what I was expecting is unclear. Luckily, Challengers seems to have split difference between the pop confections of their first two albums and the depth on Twin Cinema. It still doesn’t entirely hit the stride of Electric Version, but it is an excellent album for an excellent band.
You can hear the blend of texture and infectiousness on the first single, “My Rights Versus Yours”. It opens with gentle guitars and harmonies, slowly building in instruments as Carl sings. You can hear Kathryn Calder’s and Neko’s vocals drifting around the backgrounds when the chorus charges in full glory and you know that the band is mingling perfectly. The title track is dark and echoey, like an old Springsteen outtake, which when you think about it, isn’t too far from where the New Pornographers exist, minus the vocal harmonies. Here, on “Challengers,” Neko takes the lead vocals and creates a dusty country ballad filtered through late 70’s rock and it is beautiful. The flipside might be “All the Things that Go to Make Heaven and Earth,” a real barnburner that is much more reminiscent of early New Pornographers, right down to the shouted/harmonized chorus. The same could be said for “Mutiny, I Promised You,” a 60’s pop song covered in rock and roll lather.
“All the Old Showstoppers” and “Myriad Harbor” are tried-and-true New Pornographers, with the former taking more of countrified twang and the latter a more straight-down-the-barrel rock track with Dan Bejar’s vocals taking on a sweet, almost Elvis Costello feel. Bejar’s also hits the perfect pop melody on “Entering White Cecilia,” a pretty sexual song that actually never admits it is. One of the real gems on the disc happens to be a first for the band. “Failsafe” is Wurlitzer-playing Kathryn Calder’s first swing at lead vocals, and she rips into a distorted rocker. Her breathy vocals are balanced delicately with Neko’s and Carl’s, and the results are fantastic, it is a sonic delicacy. “Unguided” is downright epic, clocking in at over six minutes, but it builds like a lost child from Matthew Sweet’s In Reverse, reverberating with a wall-of-sound glory, 60’s rock meeting 70’s rock, all wrapped up in the 21st century. You get that same feeling from “Go Places,” where the sound has a depth in three dimensions (well, at least on good headphones) as it surrounds Neko’s vocals.
Then there is the album closer, “Adventures in Solitude." It is absolutely, fundamentally, truly sublime. Carl and Kathryn seem to be taking turns finishing each other’s lines, meshing perfectly into a single vocal, chiming in the slow, melancholy melody. It really gives you butterflies when you just close your eyes and listen to the band all harmonize, with no accompaniment beyond piano, ”we thought we lost you/welcome back” – it is a transcendent moment in pop music. Then Neko comes in towards the middle, as the song takes a turn towards the orchestral, and you realize why the New Pornographers are more powerful when everyone is working together.
Now, after all this, why can’t I put Challengers at the same level as Electric Version? Well, that might be just merely the fact that I’m not sure you can put a newly released album on that kind of pedestal. Sure, certain critics do that sort of thing all the time, but to truly understand an album as truly textured as the aforementioned discs, you really need time to let the songs permeate your skin, soak into your mind and find their true standing. All I can say right now is that Challengers is a sparkling pop record that is a testament to how exceptional the New Pornographers are.