Long-running pop-rock band still crafting surprisingly nervy, radio-ready jams
With the New Pornographers, A.C. Newman has long displayed a knack for crafting pop-rock songs so instantly toe-tapping that they can almost obscure the nervy undercurrents running through his words.
This trend continues on the group's seventh and most-recent full-length, Whiteout Conditions, which includes melodic, radio-ready gems about navigating depression (“Whiteout Conditions”), toeing the divide between art and commerce (“Play Money”) and growing political tensions in the era of President Donald Trump (“High Ticket Attractions”).
“I'm feeling the weight of America right now, and ‘High Ticket Attractions' was definitely about the anxiety of the times,” said Newman, who joins his bandmates for a concert at Newport Music Hall on Saturday, April 22 (including Neko Case but not Dan Bejar of Destroyer, who sat this LP and subsequent tour out). “It's all about my fear for the country and the future and how that becomes the fear for your family and yourself.
“When I look back at everything we've done, a lot of it is about … being in a dark place and trying to escape through music. I think that contrast has always been there.”
Other aspects of the band have changed in the 18 years since the players first got together in Vancouver, British Columbia. While writing and recording New Pornographers' debut album, Mass Romantic, from 2000, Newman, 38, said he was solely fueled by a desire to make music. “There was no drive for success,” he said. “Making music was the end, and success was finishing [the album] and releasing it. I didn't care if I made any money.”
Now, with a wife and son and a home in upstate New York, it's impossible to completely ignore the financial aspects of creating, a concept Newman explores in “Play Money” lines like, “I only play for money, honey/Look at what this fun has done to me.”
“As soon as we had some success, it drove me to be as prolific as possible because I thought, ‘OK, I'm lucky enough to be able to do this for a living now, so I should treat it like a job.' That's why Electric Version was [released in] 2003, [A.C. Newman solo album] Slow Wonder was 2004, Twin Cinema was 2005,” Newman said. “When it becomes your job, you can't completely ignore the business side of it. If I cease to make money playing music, I can't just shrug and go to my wife and son and say, ‘Yeah, we're losing the house. What are you going to do?' You become an adult and all of a sudden life has a little more weight to it.”
While writing the songs that would become Mass Romantic, Newman was in a less-stable place than he is nowadays, trapped in a poisonous relationship and unsure about his career decisions. “I felt like my life wasn't going anywhere,” he said.
Though these feelings dissipated slightly with the critical success of the band's debut, it wasn't until early 2005 that Newman finally started to believe it might be possible to carve out an actual career in music. As recently as 2004, he recalled looking at his bank account and thinking, “How long can I survive?”
“At that point it was all still very part-time; we didn't tour much,” Newman said. “In 2005, things were going well and we finally said, ‘Let's give this thing the old college try. Let's go to Europe. Let's go to Australia.' That's really when it became more of a career.”
In recent times, the New Pornographers have adopted a more traditional release cycle, allowing three or four years to pass between full-lengths rather than hewing to the album-a-year pace of those early days. Regardless, the music has lost none of its urgency, and Whiteout Conditions might be the band's most propulsive effort to-date — a reality that led Bejar to stick to the sidelines, comfortable with the knowledge his slower, knottier tunes might be a more-awkward fit this time around.
“I don't know if it was purposeful or if it just happened by accident, but we found ourselves wanting to have this pseudo-Krautrock vibe,” said Newman, noting the group's penchant for weird tics that make even the simplest pop compositions sound somehow warped. “Play Money,” for instance, is structured around an odd number of bars, falling on a six-beat count rather than the traditional four.
“There's always something that's not quite right, or something a little off,” Newman said. “It's like we're incapable of writing ‘Louie Louie,' and even if we tried to, something is going to be off. It's going to be ‘Louie Louie' with an extra two beats at the end.”