I recently attended a New Pornographers concert at First Avenue and, as I was waiting for them to appear on stage, I began to evaluate their position in the world of music. Although they have many fans and can sell out venues like First Avenue with great regularity, they remain curiously unloved in the larger sense. They are more viewed as consistent and dependable. Yet there is something unique about them, and that uniqueness flows from Carl Newman, the group’s ringleader and main songwriter. While the group has many qualities which mark them out as excellent, not least the songwriting of Dan Bejar and the voice of Neko Case, it is Newman who steers the ship and, as such, it is his personality which defines how the group are viewed by the masses.
Carl Newman isn’t cool, but he hasn’t commodified his uncoolness like Rivers Cuomo. He’s not begging to be called a nerd. His music collection would probably be called hipster by people whose opinions are not worth anybody’s time, but he’ll never be cool. Not in the way that Dan Bejar is cool. Newman exists in some midway point between T-Rex and ELO, wanting to dazzle like Bolan but coming across like Jeff Lynne in person. His lyrics share Bolan and Lynn’s predilection for pop inscrutability, as opposed to Bejar’s intellectual inscrutability. Newman’s lyrical approach sounds like it emerged fully formed from ‘Band On The Run’ while Bejar’s leapt forth from ‘Perfect Skin’.
Despite being the driving force behind the New Pornographers, Carl Newman doesn’t want to be the centre of attention. While people like James Mercer fire every member of their band, Newman works to keep big hitters like Neko Case and Dan Bejar a part of the lineup, giving Bejar a revolving door that allows him to come and go as he pleases. Even when he doesn’t contribute to an album, Bejar still casts a shadow.
I remember seeing the New Pornographers in Chicago (without Dan) and in between songs somebody shouted “Destroyer” (reminding me that people would yell “Eno” in between songs at early Roxy Music shows, infuriating Ferry and embarrassing Eno). Newman looked a little crestfallen, but he casually stated that he loved Destroyer. Newman seems to posses an unflappable decency, betraying no signs of egomania. People with egomania often get called geniuses, as if that same fragile ego propels boundless creativity. Newman is uninterested in such cliched tropes. More than once he has had to see his band billed as Neko Case and the New Pornographers. I’m sure he seethed, then shrugged, then got on with it.
The New Pornographers are retro, but they don’t make an idol of the past. They don’t try to recreate any particular period of music. They aren’t glam. They aren’t indie, even if they wouldn’t find an audience in any other musical subculture. They aren’t rock. They aren’t pop in terms of what currently resides in the charts. They aren’t power pop in a Raspberries or a #1 Record way. Newman would never be accepted into the ultra serious world of singer-songwriters. There’s too much crunch in the New Pornographers sound. They don’t fit easily into any particular scene.
I say all of these things because I think Newman’s desire to present the New Pornographers as a collective means that his individual songwriting contributions are often forgotten. He’s almost the forgotten man in his own band. Yes, everyone knows Newman is the leader and writes most of the songs, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Yet it should. Newman has been at the helm of a remarkable run of albums, with enough swoops and dives in his songwriting to merit him being labelled a genius, if we are to accept that any songwriter may be called a genius.
If I’m being honest, I wasn’t blown away by their latest album, Whiteout Conditions. Maybe there’s a blue curse on the New Pornographers, given that their other lacklustre album is Electric Version, and its artwork is also dominated by the colour blue. In a somewhat ironic twist, Bejar provided Electric Version with two of its catchiest moments, those being ‘Testament To Youth In Verse’ and ‘Ballad Of A Comeback Kid’. Otherwise the songs lacked something. Some bite. Some fizz. Some dynamic production. This may be the issue on Whiteout Conditions. Hearing the songs live first, I was let down by the recorded versions. Nevertheless this does not detract from Newman’s otherwise magnificent output and let’s not forget every New Pornographers album is a grower. Even Electric Version.
What does Newman bring to the table? Glam slam with a melancholy undertow. Craft mixed with retro pop thrills. It’s the melancholy that pulls you in though. Often his most memorable melodic refrains have a tearful quality to them, an unquantifiable factor that hints at lost dreams which can never be recaptured. Maybe those dreams are the thrills promised by youth and the pop music of our salad days. Best let them go. Newman conjures them up, but only briefly. We glimpse them for a second. We’re not really sure what his songs are about. Are they about anything? Yet they generate an emotional response. They hint and insinuate, and their melodies tug at our hearts. This is Newman’s gift, and he’s given it over and over again.
The New Pornographers are an amazing group of people. Neko Case has a voice that can make people stop talking and stare at her, enraptured. Dan Bejar gets to leap in and out of the frame whenever he pleases, all the while pouring his heart into Destroyer and making the New Pornographers something of an afterthought for him. Yet his contributions are always memorable and at times steal the show. John Collins is the admirable First Mate to Newman, the second most indispensable band member but even more anonymous than Newman. Kathryn Calder's addition on Twin Cinema coincided with a huge leap in songwriting prowess. Each musician brings something to the table, but nothing is possible without Newman. Newman’s songs are the rock upon which the greatness of the New Pornographers is built. His voice lacks Case’s power and Bejar’s innate sense of drama, yet it perfectly suits this no frills frontman, wrestling with his insecurities, wanting perhaps to get out front more, not wanting to make it all about him, having to work always to make his music a success.
Listen now to ‘Mass Romantic’, to ‘The Fake Headlines’, to ‘Letter From An Occupant’, to ‘It’s Only Divine Right, to ‘The Bleeding Heart Show’, to ‘The Jessica Numbers’, to ‘Sing Me Spanish Techno’, to ‘My Rights Versus Yours', to ‘Challengers', to ‘Go Places’, to ‘Crash Years’, to ‘Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk’, to ‘Brill Bruisers’, to ‘Champions Of Red Wine’, and accept that we are dealing with an extraordinary songwriter, and one who has never really been given his due. There exists an unspoken credibility gap between the New Pornographers and bands like Fleet Foxes or the Arcade Fire, a gap that exists because Newman insists on placing a high importance on catchy hooks and unpredictable turns. Absolute seriousness will always win the day and, while New Pornographers songs are not always fun, Newman can’t take himself too seriously. It is an artistic blessing but a self-promotional curse and, as such, Newman’s gifts are taken for granted. It need not be so. I leave the live show exhilarated but puzzled. How can a songwriter this special be overlooked so often? The answer to that question is outlined above. All of the elements have lined up together to deny Newman his place among elite. Yet, for the New Pornographers’ true believers, Newman’s talent is always appreciated and his songs invariably reveals their gifts over time. Time to give Whiteout Conditions another spin.