Despite the fair-to-middling reviews that have greeted the New Pornographers' Challengers, a string of well-attended shows and a late-night date with David Letterman are not to be scoffed at. But the acclaim that matters most to head Pornographer A.C. Newman comes from indie-rock poet Craig Finn of the Hold Steady.
"He reviewed our show when we played at Glastonbury, and he wrote what I thought was a really nice thing about one of our songs," reports the red-haired singer-guitarist, on the line from an Albuquerque, New Mexico, tour stop. "He said, 'When you're listening to that song you don't know what the hell they're talking about, but you know you feel the exact same way.' It made me think about listening to R.E.M.'s Murmur when I was a teenager. Nobody knows what the hell Murmur's about, but you're like, 'Yeah, there's something about this music I understand.'"
It's still too early to guess whether or not the Vancouver-spawned New Pornographers will hit the heights achieved by Michael Stipe and company, but based on Challengers they deserve to no matter what more snippy reviewers might say. They're definitely going to reap a bushel of bemused and even baffled compliments from everyday listeners: the songs on Challengers are not easy to decode, but they're presented with such confidence and creativity that their opacity is rarely an issue.
"I don't think I ever wanted to tell stories that are really, really straight, you know?" says Newman, who wrote all but three of Challengers' dozen tracks. "I want there to be a little work involved for the listener."
Even so, he's willing to vouchsafe a few clues. His contributions to the new disc were penned, he says, during a period of intense emotional and geographic turmoil. "It was at a point when I'd started dating a girl who's now my wife and I had moved to New York," he allows. "It was a strange limbo time: you're basically entering a new chapter of your life. You're kind of happy and you've found this person, but you're not entirely sure of it and you don't know where things are heading."
Just to keep things from being too clear, he adds, he gave the love songs "Challengers" and "Go Places" to part-time Pornographer Neko Case to sing a decision that seems wise. "I just thought she could really nail them," he says happily. "It's kind of funny because the two songs that are the most personal on the record, that are pretty much just songs to my wife about my wife, I gave to Neko to sing. Maybe that was my present to my wife; I was like, 'She'll sing them much better than me. They'll be much better songs.'"
Newman is particularly pleased with Challengers' title track, which he explains is one of the most narrative-driven songs he's ever composed: "Basically, it's about two people who meet and really like each other but they're both with other people and they can't really do anything about it, so they just kind of go off. Which I just thought was an interesting idea, because that's kinda how it was with myself and my wife, and I think that's how it is for a ton of people. So it was basically about being in that situation and trying to do the best thing, which was just back off, and go, 'Maybe this will work out later, but until then”¦' That's pretty much what that song's about.
"I was talking to another writer who said his wife thought that song was so sad, because she thought it was about two people who could never be together," he adds, laughing. "So I told him to tell her that they get married and have a happy ending, so don't worry about it."
This adult perspective informs much of the music on Challengers, which is more complex, layered, and subtle than the New Pornographers' previous work. It also features acoustic instruments such as mandolin, melodica, banjo, and accordion, as well as a string quartet on some numbers.
"As you get a few records into a career, you're trying to do things you haven't done before," Newman contends. "I think when we started out we were a lot more of a rock band, you know. These days, we're just trying to expand the things we try and do like being quiet when a song feels like it needs to be quiet. Sometimes a song works best when it's really loud; some work best with just a vocal and a piano. But when I step back I can't really say what was going through our heads. I don't know if we're getting older, or if we're mellowing out; it's hard to say."
Perhaps the next album will tell. Newman says he hasn't yet given New Pornographers V much thought, but holds out a small ray of hope for those who think Challengers is too laid-back. "I find, these days, that when I'm writing the songs I either want them to be really mellow or I want them to be totally riff-rock," he says. "I've just gotten tired of the middle ground."
The New Pornographers play the Commodore Ballroom on Friday (September 28).