AC Newman, ‘Shut Down The Streets’ – Album Review
The Pornographer doesn’t fall far from the tree. To say that ‘Shutdown the Streets,’ the third solo record from New Pornographers frontman AC Newman, sounds like the Vancouver band’s work is understatement — yet at the same time, the album is thoroughly his own.
If you know the Pornographers, the ‘Streets’ will feel as comfortable as an autumn sweater. Featuring breezy, honeyed melodies, at-times nonsensical lyrics (‘There’s Money In New Wave’ is just a notch above ‘Sing Me Spanish Techno’ in coherence) and the feathery vocals of Neko Case, it’s the kind of music Newman’s been making for at least a dozen years, which is both good and bad.
What’s difficult, then, is that when Case branched out from the Pornographers in 2009, she made the best pop-folk album of the decade, ‘Middle Cyclone.’ ‘Shut Down the Streets’ feels limited in comparison, with tracks like ‘You Could Get Lost Out Here and ‘Hostages’ sagging in the middle, almost enough to make one switch the record off. Thankfully, Newman shows a practiced pop hand — highlights include superb opener ‘I’m Not Talking’ — and a great deal of poignancy beneath all the sticky sweetness.
As he wrote while previewing the record on the Huffington Post, the album is about “birth, death, happiness and sadness,” as he was “chronicling a time in my life where all those things had to learn to coexist side by side.” He’s referring to the death of his mother and the birth of his son, the poles that unite, rather than divide, the emotional content of the album. While these are familiar sounds, just as shag-carpeted as his other early ’70s anthems, there’s an tender urgency here that’s new.
Take, for instance, ‘Strings,’ ostensibly a ballad to his young son Stellan. What could be sweeter than a father singing, “I could do things for you,” and, “We’ve been waiting for you,” among those pitter-pattering synths and googly-eyed gang choruses? And, in that same space, there’s grief: The closing title track was written after the death of his mother. The sound is spare, with Newman and Case singing harmonies over a shuffle of shivering percussion, sketching a folktale of the loss he experienced. “The roads we drove down all lined with people, cap-in-hand and crying / It went one for miles and miles and miles,” Newman sings. The metaphor extends through the song, closing the album with solace and celebration. And so we’ve got something beautiful on our hands: Here, at 44, is AC Newman as we’ve always, as well as never, heard him before.