Like a character actor suddenly making his move to centre stage, A. C. (Carl) Newman is at last ready to take on the role of romantic leading man.
That's the impression given by a campaign mounted by his U.S. record label. In Matador's ad promoting the release of the Vancouver songwriter's solo debut, The Slow Wonder, a series of photographs show the woolly haired pop maestro falling asleep with a book of philosophy on his chest in one picture and in another standing alone with a bouquet as though waiting to meet someone. Then, just when all seems lost, a young woman arrives.
"We just took a bunch of photos," says Newman at a Denman Street coffee shop, a couple of blocks from his apartment. "The only photo I knew I wanted to take was the one of me holding the flowers and the back of this girl's head--like me giving flowers to the faceless girl. And we took all these other ones and someone at Matador put them all together and made it look really funny. It's ridiculous, really--like me falling asleep with the Michel Foucault book. It was just the most pretentious book I could find on my shelves."
As the main singer-songwriter in no fewer than three important Vancouver bands, including the internationally renowned New Pornographers, Newman isn't exactly averse to the spotlight. But striking out on his own was an inevitable, perhaps even overdue, move. Since he first fronted the 10-piece guitar orchestra Superconductor on Vancouver stages over a decade ago he's developed into a mature, craft-conscious writer capable of working in a number of different formats.
The Slow Wonder is loaded with Newman trademarks, like oblique lyrics, classic pop melodies, and songs that pack a nearly claustrophobic number of hooks into their two- and three-minute running times. Opener "Miracle Drug" is an economical yet fast-hitting rock number that doesn't waste a note. "Drink to Me, Babe, Then" is a woozy little midtempo affair with great lines to spare. And in the jumpy "On the Table", Newman gets away with some wordplay that would make Elvis Costello think twice when he rhymes non sequiturs and amateurs. Every tune has at least one cool instrumental bit: the killer guitar riff in "Miracle Drug", the whistle solo in "Drink to Me, Babe, Then", and the driving mix of cello and piano in the disc's most full-tilt rocker, "The Town Halo". And, having grown accustomed to writing with a strong female vocalist in mind--Neko Case in the New Pornographers--Newman saves plenty of melody-stealing moments for backup vocalist Sarah Wheeler.
"I think when you're working in pop music you want to be as concise as possible," says Newman of his songwriting approach. "At least I do. I want all the melody and all the words to fit together perfectly and be seamless, but at the same time I want them to have some narrative logic."
Narrative logic plays a part in "Come Crash", a track that riffs on the idea of two car-accident survivors getting together. Although on first listen it sounds like a simple plea from a lover, the song's deeper meaning is revealed by the line "we should be dead".
"I'm just glad people are noticing the lyrics are downbeat," Newman says. "The lyrics on the New Pornographers records are kind of downbeat, but people go, 'This is the funniest summer party record.' But both the Rolling Stone and Spin reviews said something about how they [the tunes on The Slow Wonder] are pop songs with very dark lyrics. I thought, 'Finally, somebody's noticing.' "
A recent article in the New York Times Magazine didn't say much about Newman's lyrics, but the three-page spread did feature pictures of the singer snapped by David Bailey, the English photographer on whom Michelangelo Antonioni's film Blow-Up was based. As impressive as that sounds, though, Newman--who is also taking on the role of label head for the first time by releasing The Slow Wonder himself in Canada--realizes such things don't necessarily translate into record sales.
"It doesn't really affect things except that, when another magazine writes about me, the writer will mention that I was in the New York Times Magazine, so maybe it has a cumulative effect," Newman says. "And it's a good thing to show my mom."
Even with such high-profile articles, Newman is rarely stopped on the street. And that's fine with the somewhat reluctant solo artist.
"It seems strange to have my photo on everything," he says. "We're shooting a video tomorrow and we were talking about when my band can do it, and the producer's going, 'Most of it's going to be on Carl so you don't have to worry that much.' And I thought, 'Fuck.' "