The New Pornographers – Mass Romantic

Mass Romantic (2000)

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1. Mass Romantic 2. The Fake Headlines 3. The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism 4. Mystery Hours 5. Jackie 6. Letter From An Occupant 7. To Wild Homes 8. The Body Says No 9. Execution Day 10. Centre For Holy Wars 11. The Mary Martin Show 12. Breakin’ The Law

 

In the unlikely event that I ever become a rock star, don’t let me fool you. I’ll probably put on an act like I’m a badass whiskey-drinking, guitar-slinging mofo like Keith Richards or Waylon Jennings who just wants to play “real rock.” But no matter how much I pretend that’s who I want to be, in reality I just want to be Paul McCartney. Coolness and rock cred be damned. I just want to be able to pull hooks out of my ass on a whim that spontaneously make the whole world sing along. To paraphrase Britney Spears, if I may (and may this be the last time I ever do), just about anyone can write an angry rock song, but to write a great pop song with substance that makes people feel good? Now that takes fucking talent. I like getting my ass kicked by a dark, edgy rock song as much as the next guy, but give me a poppy rock song with a great melody and irresistible hooks and, for three minutes, I’m euphoria mode. The feeling that I get from “I Can’t Explain” or Brendan Benson’s “Tiny Spark” or Guided By Voices’ “Teenage FBI” cannot be replicated. There’s something chemical that happens in my brain when I hear those songs. That’s why really catchy songs get stuck in my head and yours. It’s like musical crack.

Carl Newman understands how to give musical crackheads what they want. Some, then, might call him an enabler; well, the way I see it, he’s one hell of a pleasure-giving pusher. His songs are pure sugar buzzes, like downing an entire box of Girl Scout cookies and suffering no gastrointestinal consequences. They’re always insanely catchy without ever being cloying or fluffy. They just make you feel good inside like the best power pop songs of all time do. And though the world was introduced to Newman’s particular talents over the course of two albums with the short-lived mid-90s outfit Zumpano, it didn’t really start paying attention until Mass Romantic arrived in 2000. It’s easy to understand why – power pop is always going to be a crowded field, and thus a hard one to stand out in. But the New Pornographers play Newman’s songs with such muscle and confidence that they will inevitably burn their way into your cerebellum out of sheer force. Indeed, Mass Romantic is almost unrelentingly loud, brash and cluttered, and while some extra space for some of the songs to breathe may have been wise in certain places, it’s impossible to discount the statement that the album’s volume makes.

Yup, it’s pretty much impossible to ignore a song like “Letter From An Occupant.” This is a different kind of pop song than anything I’m used to… it’s got, like, five hooks in it better and catchier than what most songwriters come up with in their entire careers, much less in one song. But instead of hanging back and just letting the hooks speak for themselves, which would’ve been a perfectly acceptable approach, the band attacks the song with the force of a fucking hurricane – it’s loud with rockin’ guitars, it’s got Neko Case belting out the lead vocals, and it’s forcefully in your face. Man, if every pop genius played their brilliantly constructed pop songs like punk rock songs as the New Pornos do here, Wings would have been the greatest band ever. Alas, Mass Romantic will have to serve as my only outlet to indulge in such fantasies with songs like “Occupant” and the stomping “The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism” and the triumphant “The Body Says No” and the harmony-orgy title track. All instant power pop classics. And man oh man, do Carl and Neko’s voices sound fantastic together, whether trading off lead vocals or harmonizing. What are they singing? Gibberish! Eccentric, meaningless word jumbles! But who cares? I actually consider that a strength in this case. With songs such as these, whose main purpose is to force the hook home and into the listener’s brain, it’s important that a desire to include meaningful lyrics doesn’t interfere with that quest. It’s all about how the lyrics sound together, how the cadence of the words coming from the singer’s mouth meld together with the melody to create a perfect hook. Whether or not those words actually mean anything is a comparatively minor concern.

I’ll admit there are times when the out and out brashness seems to go overboard to the point that it overshadows the hooks and the band seems unable to contain their own energy – “Mystery Hours” sort of gets lost in its own blaring roar, and “The Mary Martin Show” is just plain sloppy. And I like the fact that Newman is the only guitarist in the band at this stage because of the punk rock energy he has to play with to make up for his lack of real chops, but as a result the guitar parts just kind of chug along and rarely add much to the mix in the way of melodic elements (that’s mostly left to the vocals and Blaine Thurier’s bubbling, multi-toned keyboard parts). And then, if you’re a dick and want to look for more potential issues, there’s the matter of incorporating Dan Bejar’s off-kilter songs and, um, unique voice into the band. In the mid-90s, he—or rather, his moniker, Destroyer—had become popular in Vancouver indie rock on the back of his homemade, uber-lo-fi 4-track recordings. His songs hadn’t existed in a remotely full band context until he joined the New Pornos, so he doesn’t yet sound fully prepared for this new stage. It certainly helps him fit in when he writes a song that sounds, well, just like a Carl Newman song (“Jackie,” easily an album highlight). On the other hand, the reworking of one of his early demos, “Breakin’ The Law” into a boozy sing-along, makes for a disappointing album closer. But Bejar had not yet reached the peak of his songwriting powers. Carl Newman, on the other hand, had already developed a hell of a vision.



One Comment

  1. Emily wrote:

    “With songs such as these, whose main purpose is to force the hook home and into the listener’s brain, it’s important that a desire to include meaningful lyrics doesn’t interfere with that quest. It’s all about how the lyrics sound together, how the cadence of the words coming from the singer’s mouth meld together with the melody to create a perfect hook. Whether or not those words actually mean anything is a comparatively minor concern.”

    And here is the crux of why I never really got into the New Pornographer’s. I need good music /and/ lyrics for a song to really resonate with me and be one that I’d want to listen to again and again. Hence why my go-to New Pornographer’s song is Go Places.


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