Carl “A.C.” Newman has done the unthinkable, but not
the unexpected: He’s created The Slow Wonder, a
near-immaculate album that effortlessly shifts in tone from
power-pop chant to bittersweet, laid-back confessional to
rock-driven anthem. The primary songwriter for Canadian supergroup
the New Pornographers, Newman proves that even without his cohorts,
he’s a master of pop music with an album that’s so much
more than bouncy hooks and catchy choruses.

Music Reviews
Music Reviews
Dating tip # 3947: Take your sweetheart on a date in the stark, beautiful wilderness of British Columbia. (Courtesy of Matador Records)

The Slow Wonder opens with the kind of song that can turn lives
around: “Miracle Drug” begins with syncopated
drumbeats, then a rigid guitar hits “and 1” while
Newman belts out, “He was tied to the bed with a miracle drug
in one hand.” After the first chorus, a glowing,
fantastically taut guitar solo strains against –– but
fits perfectly into — the rhythmic framework, its writhing
energy enhanced by barely-audible synthesizer beeps.

Although “Miracle Drug” might be the most perfectly
crafted pop song this year, its primary contender is “On the
Table,” The Slow Wonder’s alternately cute and driving
third track. Here, the compositional savvy that made Newman’s
songwriting for the New Pornographers so gorgeous shows clearly. He
still densely stacks instrumental lines, but instead of the
synthesized layers in much of his previous work, Newman plays it
cool with a more pointillist approach, interlocking guitar and
rhythm lines.

He’s also sparing the keyboards on The Slow Wonder.
Instead of building off of a substratum of keyboard lines, each
element receives special treatment to create a whole that’s
worth far more than the sum of its parts: The chiming urgency of
straightforward rock piano is indeed the soul of “On the
Table,” creating something as close to pure joy as can be
found on plastic. Who knew repeated eighth notes had such
soul-moving power?

Incorporated into this meticulous instrumental mix is Carl
Newman’s casual, pretty voice, sliding deliciously easily
between straightforward tone and a falsetto that’ll shiver
your spine. Now Newman doesn’t have a “hot boy
voice” (think Death Cab for Cutie vocalist Ben
Gibbard’s bedroom tenor), but something in his lilting,
matte-finish timbre creates an honesty, a closeness that lends his
sometimes-standoffish lyrics deeper meaning. On sweeter, more
delicate songs like “Come Crash” and “Drink to
Me, Babe, Then,” you get the feeling that if Newman were
singing to you, he’d be staring at some distant spot on the
wall or down at his own feet.  

But The Slow Wonder’s not a shy kid; even on the
sensitive, intimate tracks, laid-back strumming and bardic choruses
are punctuated by slashing guitar punches and the occasional synth
swoop. “Come Crash” is a love song that depicts the
events of only one night, but the dialogue between its two
characters tells all about their relationship. “She plants
one kiss for the road on my chest … / Christine, come crash on my
floor,” Newman’s character sings; she counters with
“‘We should be dead / We should be stars and perfect
tens / And that’s just three off the top of my
head,’” later adding “I should be sleeping in
your bed / Instead, I’ll crash on your floor.” The
verbal “crash” is punctuated four beats later with
cymbal and snare roll and a diabolical guitar hook.

While none of the tracks on The Slow Wonder bounce with the same
candy-cocaine energy of many New Pornographers songs, Newman
hasn’t abandoned the ideas that drove his songwriting for the
group: “The Town Halo” could fit easily on the New
Pornographers’ 2003 album Electric Version.

Newman keeps us interested through the album’s
all-too-brief 33-minute runtime — The Slow Wonder’s
only fault is that it’s so short –– although by
the closer, “35 in the Shade,” he has forgone a few of
the uber-catchy hooks of “Miracle Drug” and
“Secretarial” in favor of larger musical contour in
individual songs: The primary drive of “Come Crash” is
depiction of the tense, post-trauma scene, and “The Cloud
Prayer” abandons hooks for soulful brass texture and hopeful,
childlike lyrics.

The poet William Carlos Williams once said that a poem is a
machine made of words. If that’s so, each song on The Slow
Wonder is a machine made of sound, a device that creates not only
enjoyment in listeners, but assists in a process of bodily
levitation brought on by music, lifting listeners off the ground
with a mix of heady emotion and broad vision.

In the same way a poem isn’t just a verbal equation, words
jammed together in hopes of creating precision on paper,
Newman’s first solo effort isn’t simply a jumble of
vibrant guitar solos, poppy beats and piano banging. With the most
basic music elements, The Slow Wonder works miracles on the mind
with each track — 11 little fastidiously crafted musical
machines.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

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