Before its release this past Tuesday, the buzz on Challengers, the fourth album by The New Pornographers, was that this was their most mature album. "Mature" is, of course, the term rock critics use when an artist gains a new perspective on life after getting married, their first child is born, or a loved one dies; and breaks out the acoustic guitars. It's also a euphemism for "This one's OK, but it all goes downhill from here."
I don't know if Carl Newman's relationship with his new bride has affected his songwriting, although it's hard not to hear the gorgeous "Go Places" and think otherwise. Songs about blown speakers and slow descents into alcoholism have mostly given way to matters of the heart. And yes, there are plenty of acoustic guitars. This new direction is evident from the first track, "My Rights Versus Yours," the first time the New Pornographers have opened an album without a full-scale blowout.
This shouldn't come as a shock to anybody. Some of the best songs on their previous effort, Twin Cinema, were the quieter ones, like "The Bleeding Heart Show" and "Bones Of An Idol," but there were also moments of power pop euphoria like "Sing Me Spanish Techno" and "Star Bodies." Challengers comes close on "Mutiny, I Promise You" and "All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth," but they're toned down, missing the explosiveness that sent the earlier songs over the edge.
But that's not necessarily a bad thing because the (comparatively) stripped-back sound allows their trademark subtle hooks to come forward out of the mix, like the backwards guitar on "All The Old Showstoppers," and the glockenspiel on the epic "Unguided." And the tone is responsible for some astonishingly beautiful moments, such as the second half of "Adventures In Solitude."
Most importantly, it puts greater emphasis on their melodies, which remain the sharpest and most innovative this side of a Burt Bacharach box set. With Kathryn Calder fully integrated into the band rather than just being perceived as Neko Case's backup, this creates an even richer sound to their already-breathtaking harmonies.
However, I'm a little disappointed in Dan Bejar's three contributions. Except on "The Spirit Of Giving," his writing lacks the edge of his previous efforts (oh, to be able to hear "Ballad Of A Comeback Kid" for the first time again), and his "mad scientist" voice doesn't translate as well to the quieter sound of the album.
But for the most part, The New Pornographers, on Challengers, deliver the goods yet again. They might never make The Electric Version again, but that doesn't mean that what they've replaced it with won't keep you coming back to it again and again.