A.C. Newman
Get Guilty
Matador

3 out of 5 Stars

“There are maybe 10 or 12 / Things I could teach you / After that, well, you’re on your own / And that wasn’t the opening line / It was the 10th or the 12th / Make of that what you will.”

It wouldn’t be fair to make those opening lines the entire premise for Get Guilty, A.C. Newman’s first solo recording in five years. But whether he knows it or not, those jumbled, confusing lyrics, which kickoff album-opener “There are Maybe Ten or Twelve,” are sadly fitting. Get Guilty, unlike its predecessor, the oft-forgotten yet perfectly jovial and pop-centric The Slow Wonder, lacks just about everything that made his previous solo effort such a memorable pop artifact.

Instead, Get Guilty feels tossed together, featuring erratic musical pieces with qualities ranging from stale to instantly lovable. It’s not surprising, since the same problems have started to hound The New Pornographers (which Newman fronts as Carl Newman).

For what it’s worth, The Slow Wonder never really felt like a whole album. Instead, it was an exquisite collection of instantly memorable, unforgettable singles. Songs like “On the Table” and “Miracle Drug” had vibrant energy that showcased a talented songwriter and musician in his natural element. Slower tracks like “Better than Most” got by on memorable percussion and fluttering guitar lines. Get Guilty has some of those high points (the jangling, higher energy “The Palace at 4 AM” for one), but mostly the album remains stagnant and stretched, revealing a man who really doesn’t know where some lines should go and possibly doesn’t even care.

Get Guilty stands for the opposite principles of The Slow Wonder and proves that Newman might’ve left his quick-hitting, spontaneous self in the rear view mirror. Tracks like “The Changeling (Get Guilty),” with its dull waltz beat and “Get guilty, kid” refrain are drowsy at best. “Elemental,” with its soothing guitar progression, yearns for a shot of caffeine, a quicker pace and at least some sense that Newman wants to sing the damn song. Aside from the entrance of the faux-organ keyboards, the song drags. “All of My Days and All of My Days Off” trudges along in three feet of snow; echoing patterns of “All of my days” might make the song catchy, but never quite for the right reasons.

Despite the low points, even a poor album from A.C. Newman beats the tar out of most other so-called “bad” releases. Since he has such aplomb for cranking out dizzyingly successful singles, Get Guilty still contains a few tracks that are on par with what he’s capable of offering. Even with its awkward opening lines, “There are Maybe Ten or Twelve” rattles out of the gate with a thundering stampede of sound and settles down into a standard of self-reflective, finger-plucking melodies. “Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer” finds Newman at home, bopping along with a catchy chorus and better-than-stock drum moments that hint to a man who still has some life in him after all.

But maybe the biggest question for Newman is: Why put out another solo album now? Was he really hurting to get a lot of these songs out on his own without The New Pornographers? Well, probably. It’s fair to chalk the record up to the fact that most of the New Pornos are too busy doing their own things. “Young Atlantis” needs Neko Case’s dominating voice, not Newman’s high, lovable fluctuations. And even “The Collected Works” could be taken to another place with Dan Bejar or John Collins.

If we’re looking for test cases, there’s no better place than 2007’s Challengers, on which Newman’s lackadaisical songs were rescued by the rest of the band. So when a song like “Submarines of Stockholm” — not a terrible song by any means — shows up on Get Guilty, it’s not unrealistic to think it would’ve been even better with a dose of Bejar singing the “la la las” or Case dueling Newman on vocals.

Maybe Get Guilty would have been better off as a New Pornographers’s album, but either way, A.C. Newman just seems a bit out of his element here. Sure, a bunch of worthy singles pop up, but that’s not what we should expect. It’s understandable that he doesn’t exude the same energy he did earlier in his career, but it’s a shame because his best came with that sort of gusto. Maybe his opening lines aren’t quite what they should be, but that’s the least of his problems now.

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