15 Years Ago: The New Pornographers Debut With ‘Mass Romantic’
From the first recording sessions in 1998 through the U.S. release in October 2003, the New Pornographers' debut had one of the longer gestation periods of any album in recent memory. A lot happened during those five years, but if you want to send Mass Romantic a birthday card, tomorrow (November 21) is a pretty good date. That's the day the album dropped in the band's native Canada.
For many of us, Mass Romantic provided our first exposure to the great Neko Case, though she was already by far the best known member of the self-proclaimed supergroup. Thanks to Case's exceptional vocals, the lead (and only) single "Letter From An Occupant" sounds like Big Star fronted by Belinda Carlisle, a welcome mashup of '70s power pop and the new wave-tinged flavor of early '80s pop.
Power pop was the genre most invoked by critics, but Mass Romantic displays a range of influences well beyond Cheap Trick and Alex Chilton. The title track owes a tremendous debt to the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," for example, with its "oo-ee-oo" bridge. It was feel good music for a new generation – one that was coming out of the relative bleakness of post-grunge.
The band even invoked the big daddies of pop music, echoing the Beatles "A Day in the Life" in "The Fake Headlines," where songwriter A.C. Newman turns the news that John Lennon's character once read (today, oh boy) on its head. "I wrote the news today," Newman sings. It's an interesting twist, making the song's protagonist (and thus the listener via his proxy) an active participant rather than a peripheral narrator as in Lennon's verses of "A Day in the Life."
"The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism" evokes Electric Light Orchestra, but with a much more approachable vibe. That's perhaps the key to the album's appeal -- accessibility. Sure, Newman is singing about succumbing to addiction, but the track is so damned hooky that it's impossible not to bob one's head in time.
Although Newman was the album's principle songwriter, vocalist-keyboardist Dan Bejar wrote (or co-wrote) four of the album's 12 tracks. In an interview with Pitchfork, Newman identified the shared writing load as essential to the album's diversity:
It's one of those things where I thought, 'How could we lose?' You could just take some interesting elements and put them together. Even taking myself out of the picture, when I looked at the band I just thought, 'This band's got to be great.' I thought, 'Okay, everyone can hate my songs, they can dismiss them.' But I have the most confidence in Dan's songs because I'm totally outside of him, looking in. I'm just a fan of him."
Bejar came from a band called Destroyer. That band's 1996 debut, We'll Build Them a Golden Bridge, included a track entitled "Breakin' the Law" – a mid-tempo acoustic number with a sort of sing-songy cadence. Recast as a New Pornographers song, it became demented circus music with a time signature as slippery and enchanted as its intentionally naive lyrics. That childlike innocence is punctuated at the end of the track by the "Camp Northstar Kids' Chorus," which was really just the band multi-tracking their own voices. "Camp Northstar" was no more than a tongue in cheek reference to Bill Murray's classic camp comedy Meatballs.
"Mystery Hours" might be the purest power pop track on the album, suitable for a spot on Cheap Trick's One on One, perhaps right after "She's Tight." If you've ever wondered what it felt like to cruise around in a Pontiac Fiero with the wind fluttering the mullet that lurks beneath your painter cap, this pretty much captures that moment.
But the secret weapon on Mass Romantic is Bejar's organ. It's a sound so ubiquitous on '60s pop, bubblegum and psychedelic tracks that including organ on a cut automatically dates it – like a false patina on a replica bronze statue. Throw in a couple of "la la las" like in "The Mary Martin Show" and one cannot resist being thrust back in time.
Like the "Camp Northstar Kids' Chorus," "The Mary Martin Show" was entirely an invention of the New Pornographers. Best known for playing Peter Pan on stage during the '50s, Mary Martin never hosted a show by that name, so why create one? Within the world of the song, there's no apparent reason (other than perhaps the alliteration works metrically and the name evokes an era of celebrity hosted variety shows). It's all part of the slightly surreal world of Mass Romantic -- a world that's almost real but not quite.
The album was very well received. The Village Voice's Robert Christgau rated the album an A-, complimenting the album's "switched-on brio, sardonic multireferentiality, and jubilant momentum."
If you don't own a copy and you want maximum Mass Romantic for your money, keep an eye out for the Japanese CD import on P-Vine Records. That version has two bonus tracks unavailable on the original Canadian version and the U.S. release on Matador.