The New Pornographers

Twin Cinema

(Mint/Matador; 2005)

By Peter Hepburn | 26 January 2008

It took me a long time to see how anybody could possibly view The New Pornographers’ sophomore effort, Electric Version (2003), as anything less than a miracle of pop music. Those seven unstoppable Canadians seemed to have it down cold; they were hitting all the switches and holding nothing back. It was musical cotton candy, the sugar dissolving on your tongue, eating out your enamel, juicing up your bloodstream.

But go back and listen through Mass Romantic (2000), and the follow-up's flaw becomes clear: too much of a good thing. With that first album the band was still getting its bearings, pushing in five directions at once, and it never felt quite so monolithic. The moments where everything did hit at once, coming together in the likes of “Letter from an Occupant” and “Execution Day," stood out all the more clearly, and moment-of-clarity greatness is what made the NP debut inarguably superior. Electric Version, with its occasionally DeLaughter-esque levels of overload, never let up and didn’t have the variety of its predeccesor, which left the listener free to miss the forest for the trees.

Twin Cinema is distinctly an album: a record that manages to be more than the sum of its parts, which seems entirely appropriate for a band that is more than the sum of its (now nine) parts. A few of the songs almost seem to invite intitial disappointment, but with every successive listen there are new reasons to keep coming back; this here's pop music that is immediate but not slutty. Carl Newman expands on the delayed gratification he developed with The Slow Wonder, letting the hooks hit you the fifth time around and burying more general cleverness in the songs than this review can hint at.

As the band has gelled into a unit, they have expanded their repertoire. The slow build of “The Bones of an Idol” has a relaxed, cohesive feel that was lacking on Electric Version. The Neko Case-helmed “These are the Fables” charts new territory for the band, right down to that funk breakdown that still catches me off-guard every time I hear it. Even the somewhat disappointing “Falling Through Your Clothes” at least affords Newman the opportunity to try something more sparse in his arrangement. (Meanwhile, CMG's Chet pulls a kid glove out of the air and slaps the face of anyone who hates on the song. Chet loves the verses (Massa Scott: "Sounds like that Chutes Too Narrow B-side that was all weird and awesome"), and Chet thinks that the chorus is "the hype." With that poor use of slang, Chet meant to say that he thinks that the loop is one of the most interesting and progressive moments on the record. Chet's also a fascist opinion-pusher who talks about himself in the third person.)

Still, it’s with “Sing Me Spanish Techno” and “Stacked Crooked” that Newman punches the lights out of the likes of the Fruit Bats. The former is the logical conclusion to just about everything he has done up to now, showing elements of his Zumpano work and his recent solo material while still making the most of the band he’s working with. Lyrically, it’s just as wonderfully absurdist as his previous work, and Case’s backing vocals are dead-on. The little flairs that the other members add push it one step further; without that bass flutter thirty seconds in and Todd Fancey’s Cars-loving guitar close, it wouldn’t quite hit the nirvana mark. At the end of the album, “Stacked Crooked” rides in on a drum beat that sounds like Kurt Dahle having the funkiest seizure one can imagine, and then it plays Fiery Furnaces with the instrumentation changes, bringing it all back together for two minutes of the sort of mind-blowing pop that trivializes the competition.

Then there are the Bejar songs. Considering that he is responsible for two of my all-time NP favorites (“Execution Day” and “Testament to Youth in Verse”), his contributions here do fall a bit short. “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras” is certainly fantastic, especially as a primer for “The Jessica Numbers,” but “Streets of Fire” feels distinctly out of place. It’s really the first Bejar contribution to the New Pornographer catalogue that could be termed "throw-away," especially since it doesn’t even build on the original (and equally dull) version off Destroyer’s We’ll Build Them a Golden Bridge. “Broken Breads” is full of Destroyer-isms, but at least it feels like the band is taking part in the track.

No one's going to get hung up on these problems, though, when the Pornos scale some Electric Version heights with such huge grins on their faces. Both “The Bleeding Hearts Show” and “The Jessica Numbers” are rave-ups on par with anything the band has produced to date, “Use It” and the title track not far behind. What sets these songs apart is that it finally feels like everything is mixed perfectly, letting the drums have their place near the head of the table. So say hello there to some absolutely stunning moments, most notably the bridge at 2:32 through 2:40 of “The Bleeding Hearts Show” and just about all of “Stacked Crooked” (imagine “All For Swinging You Around” with the drums way out in front. Now imagine that better than you imagined it). Or, most most notably, when Todd Fancey's guitar just suddenly decides to up 'n make the end of "The Jessica Numbers" the best thing to happen to sound in 2005; it's something I already talked about in my song review, but Chet's holding his glove over my head, forcing me to reiterate.

Flaws and signs of wear and blah blah blah: the looped chorus on “Falling Through Your Clothes” (Chet: duel me, Peter), a lead single that can feel a bit flat the first few times through, a vaguely repetitive track like “Star Bodies" (slash “It’s Only Divine Right” played backwards). So what, if you're paying any attention, you're gonna get hoodwinked by a dozen perfect little moments and some flawless songs. More importantly, the album's continuity is gonna snare you, enmesh you, hog tie and drag you down into the depths of Newman and company's craft, and trust me, it's a long way down. The New Pornographers were up to something a bit darker and moodier with Twin Cinema, and on that mystic-pop path they’ve found an album that manages to live up to the magic and promise of Mass Romantic. Is it their best album? Maybe not. Is it still the best pop album of the year? Of course.