The New Pornographers – Challengers

Challengers (2007)


1. My Rights Versus Yours 2. All The Old Showstoppers 3. Challengers 4. Myriad Harbour 5. All The Things That Go To Make Heaven And Earth 6. Failsafe 7. Unguided 8. Entering White Cecilia 9. Go Places 10. Mutiny, I Promise You 11. Adventures In Solitude 12. The Spirit Of Giving


Boy, these guys sure grew up fast. Mass Romantic sounded like it was made by manic 13-year olds who had forgotten to take their ADD meds; a mere seven years later, Challengers sounds like what it is: a quiet, introspective adult pop album made by 40-year olds. It’s not surprising, then, that this album was not received nearly as well as its predecessors upon its release. People fear change – especially when it comes to their favorite rock ‘n roll bands, about whom fans are often so closed-minded its ridiculous. OK, sure, there are numerous instances of bands changing their style for the worse and ceasing to be good. Happens all the time. But that does not mean that EVERY TIME a band does something different, they immediately start sucking. That’s retarded. I’m sorry. I’m not accusing you of holding such a moronically simplistic view. I’m just sick of all these dumbasses on the internet whining about stupid shit. You should see the way people freak out about how the Black Keys bring a bass player on tour with them now. “dude WTF their such sellouts.” NO. Having a guy go “doodley do” on a bass guitar does not make the Black Keys, or any other band, intrinsically less gritty or authentic in any way, and just because you like “Thickfreakness” and they no longer write songs that sound like “Thickfreakness” does not mean their new songs, therefore, suck. They’re just different! Judge them by their own merits, not by your own narrow-minded expectations! In conclusion, people are stupid.

Anyway, the point I was trying to make several whiny, ranting sentences ago is that Challengers introduces the world to a new New Pornographers, but not necessarily an inferior New Pornographers. All you have to do is glance at the straight A’s I awarded to the previous three NP albums to get a sense of how much I love their old fuzzy bubblegum sound. But what would you prefer – The Electric Version, Part 2? Or the band branching out into new directions in the hopes of discovering fresh methods of creativity? That’s mostly the way I look at things when a band throws its audience a change up – risk of stagnation vs. creative renewal. Of course, the change doesn’t always work out, but best to have tried and failed than to never have tried at all. Fortunately, Challengers succeeds, and ultimately it’s another great New Pornos album. I mean, say what you will about the new style, but you can’t say the quality of the songwriting has dipped at all. Opener “My Rights Versus Yours” piles on just as many awesome, catchy hooks as “The Laws Have Changed” or “Letter From An Occupant” does. It’s just that instead of crunchy guitars, whirring synthesizers and Neko Case belting out the chorus with all her might, you get piano, acoustic guitar and tender melodic harmonies. It’s calmed down, sure, but certainly no less well-written.

For the most part, the same formula holds true for the remainder of the album – instead of rocked out bubblegum, you get angelic, heart-melting beauty without any resultant dip in the melodic quality. Just listen to how “All The Old Showstoppers,” one of the album’s more upbeat moments, just glistens and glides along with its lightly plucked guitars, orchestral arrangement and always-beautiful Carl/Neko harmonies. But I don’t think a warm, poppy song like that is why some fans were skeptical of this album when it came out. More likely, it was the ballads, of which had rarely or never before appeared on a New Pornos album. Fortunately, they’re all quite stunning – Neko’s lead vocals on the hopeful, intimate, banjo-adorned title track and the unspeakably beautiful love song “Go Places” rank among her finest ever performances. Still, if the prospect of too many slow songs gives you some consternation, there are more than a few token upbeat moments here, like the peppy “Mutiny, I Promise You” (probably the only song on here than could’ve been on Electric Version), the thundering “All The Things That Go To Make Heaven And Earth,” which is buoyed by a groovy ass, rockin’ bassline, and Bejar’s fun call and response sing-along “Myriad Harbour.”

Now, there is a lull in the middle with the Bejar-by-numbers “Entering White Cecilia” and the aptly named “Unguided,” which is Carl’s first attempt at an epic-length song, i.e. it meanders along for six and a half minutes for no real reason, as if Carl wrote a regular song and then decided to repeat all the parts several extra times just for shits. So I almost had to drop this grade down to a B+, but most of this stuff is just too beautiful to allow me to do that in good conscience. After all, this was actually the first New Pornographers album I heard, so it certainly gets emotional attachment points. Let’s face it – bands change. Accept it and dig in.

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