Challengers (Last Gang)
At the risk of sounding like a killjoy, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I wish I could figure out what A.C. Newman is on about, just once. The de facto leader of the New Pornographers, Newman, who wrote all but three of the 12 songs on Challengers–Dan Bejar wrote the others–remains as wilfully obscure as ever. So I'm just going to guess that "My Rights Versus Yours" is about a particularly contentious divorce, and that "All the Old Showstoppers" chronicles a Las Vegas winning streak that ends with one last desperate turn of the wheel. Or maybe it's a metaphor for”¦something.
Clarity isn't the point when it comes to the New Pornographers. The band trades in carefully crafted power pop with sparkling, multipart harmonies. Those elements are certainly in place on Challengers, and they're joined by a few fresh ingredients, like the mandolin-tinted title track. Such dalliances are welcome, but they will certainly confound listeners who are looking for the instant sugar rush that the Pornographers have delivered in the past. If you are among that number, I direct you to "All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth" and "Mutiny, I Promise You". Those hook-barbed winners ought to satisfy your sweet tooth while you settle in to absorb the rest of Challengers, which on the whole is the slowest-moving thing in the band's catalogue.
There are payoffs, but they tend to be subtle ones, like the classical instrumentation that takes "Go Places" in a sweeping baroque direction. Elsewhere, at just over six-and-a-half minutes, "Unguided" is an epic by the New Pornographers standards, and it builds to a satisfying climax of orchestral pop majesty–even if you can't quite get what Newman is saying.