Let’s get one thing perfectly clear from the start: The New Pornographers are a fantastically talented and utterly engaging band. They make power pop with a brain and a soul and there’s no band like them anywhere. The band carries no weak members, and its principals — Canadian musical luminaries A.C. Newman, Dan Bejar and Neko Case — also conduct critically successful solo careers. Both of their previous albums, 2000’s Mass Romantic and 2003’s Electric Version, are pretty much beyond reproach as examples of joyous, energetic and inspiring pop records. This is easy to understand, right?
But their latest, Twin Cinema, creates a really tough scenario: A band with a catalogue of complex, vital, solidly enjoyable music puts out a record. Fans have been awaiting this album for two years, and the musical community considers release of the new disc to be a landmark in the band’s development. You check release dates, you buy, you listen, analyze and digest. But somewhere in the middle of the third or fourth listen, there’s this quiet little snap in your throat, a little like the way you felt when you were a kid and figured out that all four Beatles weren’t still alive. You listen over and over again, and while each song is emotional, intimate, crystal-clear beautiful, a few little pieces of the band’s unique timbre that you’ve held so much faith in for so long are gone, no matter how hard you look.
What do you make of an album that’s a misstep in the context of the band who made it, but whose qualities are a near-unreachable goal for anyone else?
To be fair, The New Pornographers might have a bit of an excuse. Dan Bejar, who’s responsible for three tracks on Twin Cinema, was a little more involved with the band’s earlier albums; now, primary songwriter A.C. Newman gives Bejar’s vivid, theatrical songs the keyboards-and-bounce treatment we’ve come to love. There’s also the question of whether Twin Cinema would be more aptly compared to Newman’s taut, explosive 2004 solo venture, The Slow Wonder; the ever-so-slightly deficient tracks on Twin Cinema — “These Are the Fables,” “The Bones of an Idol,” “Falling Through Your Clothes” — sound an awful lot like less careful versions of the brooding, intense-yet-delicate down-tempo numbers on The Slow Wonder.
Maybe it’s an issue of control: After masterminding an album that bears the numinous, unmistakable quality of a vision carried out to the letter, Newman might not be ready to go back to working with the same buoyant, keyboard pop and abstract, declamatory lyrics Mass Romantic and Electric Version are known for. The difference between Twin Cinema and its predecessors is best described with a line from “These Are the Fables”: Case, who possesses what might be the deepest, most bell-clear mezzo-soprano on earth, sings the line, “Ten thousand dancing girls kicking cans ’cross the sky / No reason why.” The saccharine tone of the lyrics, even when sung by Case, sound like a line from Celine Dion’s most recent chest-thumping single. Despite its incessant energy and bounce — the New Pornographers have never approached schmaltz.
With “The Jessica Numbers,” “Spanish Techno” and “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras,” The New Pornographers more than compensate for the less-than-perfect tracks on Twin Cinema. The sad part is that until now, they’ve never had any shortcomings to make up for.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars