On the surface, Brill Bruisers, The New Pornographers’ sixth album in the 14 years since their first, comes off like a retconning, like the picking up of a dropped stitch from some rows back. Time, much like critical appraisals of Matthew McConaughey’s appeal, is a flat circle. And what is a flat circle, but both a perpetual return to form and a symbolic lack of depth? Is this Brill Bruisers?
In the album’s press release, de facto frontman Carl Newman claims that Brill Bruisers “is stylistically as close as we can get to what I’ve always imagined us being,” which I choose to interpret as a droll joke, considering that the band has, to a considerable measure of success, put out slight variations of the same record every few years. Their appeal has been timeless, but always ebbing and flowing in terms of quality and reception. Their best work was released when they were the least well known. Although hip they never were, Mass Romantic and Electric Version served as fizzy antidotes to both the aggro post-grunge milieu that moved units in the early 00s and the winsome, confessional indie rock that stealthily rose to ubiquity throughout the latter half of the last decade. The Shins got name-checked in Garden State, while all members of The New Pornographers got royalty checks from The University of Phoenix. By the end of the decade, the band had already lost much of their support, first with Challengers — a slower, more baldly emotional record than was expected from the previously aloof and inscrutable super-group — and then with 2010’s Together, which was met with their coolest reception yet, and this time, for solid reason. Together, ironically enough, was the work of a group of friends drifting apart, losing common ground, forgetting whatever it was that made them mesh well in the first place. It makes sense that Newman sees Brill Bruisers as a rebooting of the franchise, even as its limitations have become increasingly clear with each successive release.
Others have mentioned the way that Brill Bruisers’ first single, which also happens to be both the title track and the album’s opener, is as melodically bright and as musically busy as the band’s early work. It certainly grates in a similar way, cheerful to the point of abrasion and stuffed to the gills with sub-choruses, call-and-response between the lead and backing vocals, and ascending synthesizer arpeggios, much like pretty much every song from their first two albums. The only thing missing, frankly, is the easy confidence they possessed around the turn of the millennium. But if Brill Bruisers is a retconning of their history, then its most subversive act of revision is how little it ultimately resembles the band’s early work, and how much it feels like the record that might’ve followed Challengers had that album been better appreciated at the time of its release.
The New Pornographers have always been more about feeling than emotion, but for the second time in their careers, they present their songs with the barest modicum of opacity. Rather than revert to the meaningless exuberance of their SING ME SPANISH TECHNO years, here Newman’s logorrheic songwriting is more than balanced out by the inverse curvature of his melodies. The contrast between these two elements is one of Brill Bruisers’ most rewarding features. On “Champions of Red Wine,” Neko Case’s and Kathryn Calder’s vocals overlap one another, the former dropping in key as the latter rises, and though the song is ultimately triumphant, it’s also complex and measured — mature in tone, if not content. In fact, most of Brill Bruisers could be picked apart, its components analyzed in such a fashion. There’s so much happening, even in the slightest, shortest tracks, like the Calder-fronted “Another Drug Deal of the Heart,” and Dan Bejar’s “Spyder” — the Prince-like squeal that precedes that song’s breakdown is one of my favorite little filigrees on a record full of such consistently deliberate crafting — that to argue against Brill Bruisers’ appeal would be disingenuous.
But on the other hand, Brill Bruisers has something of a disparity in quality, and some songs don’t shimmer or pop as brightly as others. “Wide Eyes” and “Hi-Rise,” their rhyming titles notwithstanding, share an unassuming, Shins-tzy, mid-tempo quality, one that I must admit is less suited to my sensibilities than the album’s more overtly Jeff Lynne-indebted material. The three Dan Bejar songs are, as you might expect, uniformly excellent, blunt and physical in ways that The New Pornographers rarely attempt to be. Coy, chaste flirtation would be a bad fit for a band cresting the proverbial hill, but maybe it says more about me than the record I’m reviewing, that the assertive swagger that Bejar brings to his selections is more appealing than the domestic comfort Newman offers on his.
Only a fool or staunch contrarian would argue that Brill Bruisers is one of The New Pornographers’ best albums. It’s a modest, pleasing effort, and a fine return on a previously diminishing investment, but it isn’t any kind of new beginning for the band. Half the charm of The New Pornographers hinges upon their frivolous, inessential nature, and as Case and Bejar become increasingly popular on their own, the Pornographers become less essential than ever. Nevertheless, Brill Bruisers is an enthusiastic correction in course, as well as a reminder that age doesn’t always equal solemnity or, for that matter, slouching toward self-importance of any kind.