Shut Down The Streets
October 4, 2012
New Pornographers leader and full-fledged power-pop genius A.C. Newman's third solo album is the punkest thing he's ever done – and also the quietest, the sweetest, the subtlest, simultaneously the most emotionally fraught and spiritually contented.
It begins with a delicately blissful song about being "in a strange in-between space where the things I had always strived for – perfect happiness, success, being the best at what I do – were suddenly not nearly as important as just holding onto what I had," as he puts it, and ends with the saddest, most direct and heartbreaking song he's ever written. In between is "dad rock" in its purest, most powerful form.
Yes, Shut Down the Streets ends with the title track, gorgeous and devastating in equal measure, which concerns the recent death of Newman's mother. From "Electric Version" to "Miracle Drug," "Sing Me Spanish Techno" to "Submarines of Stockholm," it's been possible throughout his career to dearly love his songs -- their wry lyrical enchantment, their watchmaker-precise economy -- without really having any idea what the hell he was talking about. “Shut Down The Streets,” by contrast, slow and solemn yet bravely buoyant, begins thus:
They should have shut down all the streets
Presidents and kings should've been there
With not a single empty seat
All the schools closed
And the roads we drove down all lined
Lined with people, cap in hand and crying
It went on for miles and miles and miles and miles
This is not Spanish techno. "I felt the need to be more clear in the lyrics on this album than ever before," he explains. "Not worry so much about the poetry of it. It felt like the message really had to be clear. At the least, more clear than before."
But coping with death is only part the message here; most of the rest of the songs celebrate new life, in the form of the birth of his son, Stellan, and the bucolic life Newman is carving out for his family in Woodstock, New York -- what he calls "my private new world." The shuffling gait and plinking keyboards of "You Could Get Lost Out Here" make clear that he is lost out there, and a little nervous for it, but also not a little exhilarated.
There is wit and even cleverness here -- it's an A.C. Newman record, after all, and exquisite, sugary melodies and expertly melded boy-girl harmonies (most courtesy of longtime collaborator Neko Case) come standard, along with failed-relationship laments recounted with the proper mix of gravitas and bemusement. (Song titles: "Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns" and "Wasted English.")
Still, where the sugar shock of the New Pornographers' Mass Romantic or first solo album The Slow Wonder seemed designed to give you the best headache you'd ever had, this time he's aiming for heartache -- a sharper pain, a greater reward. Better yet, it's the good kind of heartache, the bursting-with-joy kind, the kind reserved exclusively for young parenthood. There's an advice-to-my-son song here called "There's Money in New Wave," which is funny, of course, but also gets at the funny way you're simultaneously desperate to help your kids succeed and fearful that you won't have any idea what to tell them, what to do for them.
The true heart of Shut Down the Streets might be "Strings" and "Hostages," both exquisite and infectious, both expressly about Stellan, the latter described by Newman as "a straight-up joyous song," the former based on this premise: "We wanted to have a baby so much that I made a promise to the world that I would never complain again if this wish was granted to us. Now that we've been given this, I constantly have to remind myself not to be full of shit and live by the promise that I made."
“Strings,” too, immediately ranks among the most direct and unambiguous things he's ever written: '' 'We've been waiting for you' is a simple line of no great artistic worth, but it is very very true," he insists. He's only half-right.
January 20, 2009
“A.C. Newman pens melodies that seem to have sprung from the collective unconscious and then encases them in bright, lush power-pop arrangements.” –Rolling Stone
“A.C. Newman deserves every last bit of praise thrown his way. In a better world, he would
be our Elton, our Todd, our McCartney." --All Music Guide
A.C. Newman is neither Hawaiian nor Harvard grad, but oh, yes he can. This Inauguration Day, the lisping ringleader of that maximalist pop conglomerate The New Pornographers unveils his second solo album, Get Guilty.
Pitchfork called his 2004 solo debut The Slow Wonder "soulful sing-alongs with grit, pop nuggets that hold up to hours of repeat play, and ultimately, the sound of a great songwriter hitting his stride." Get Guilty both expands on and synthesizes his talents, with the introspection and nuance of The New Pornographers' last album Challengers, but with more immediacy and the excitability of his most-loved songs.
Get Guilty showcases beautifully Newman's fascinating blend of catchiness and impenetrability – witness the first single, "The Palace At 4 A.M.", a Top 40 singalong that namechecks a Donald Barthelme short story and talks of Polynesian dives, bingo, and bombs. "Thunderbolts" is from the point of view of a gang of young troublemaking gods, and "Like A Hitman, Like A Dancer" distills the 1967 film "Le Samourai" into a simple tale of indecision. Still, those simple thrilling hair-on-back-of-neck moments so familiar to Newman fans are plentiful here: The explosive "change your mind" in "Changeling (Get Guilty)"; the unexpected heart-tugging harmonies of "Like A Hitman"; the crescendo coda of "The Heartbreak Rides".
"Spot The Influence" is a perennial sport to play with Newman's songs, and he himself confoundingly explains his formula as a cross between Keith's "98.6" and 10cc's "Dreadlock Holiday." That said, he cops to "Elemental"'s guitar solo being a tribute to the band Felt, and "The Collected Works" an effort to meld George Benson's "On Broadway" with Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls". Which could all be a ploy to deflect the Jimmy Webb comparisons, but we've seen his record collection and the guy goes deep.
Players on Get Guilty include drummers Jon Wurster (Superchunk, Mountain Goats) and Charles Burst, an array of strings, horns, and woodwinds, and vocalists Nicole Atkins and Mates Of State. It sounds familiarly lush but not overworked, and even intimate. Dramatic themes recur – change, water, self-doubt, gods and prophets – yet an optimistic beauty prevails. The stately opening track gives way to the orchestral, romantic road trip of "The Heartbreak Rides," and the album closes with one of his most direct songs ever, "All of My Days and All Of My Days Off," a love letter to his wife about their wedding day.
Newman will be touring North America from February 2009 through the summer, and his cover of Aha's "Take On Me" will be featured on a Starbucks Valentine's Day compilation.
June 8, 2004
A.C. Newman had a thrilling and prosperous life prior to 1992,
but felt he needed more when he joined the Vancouver BC pop/rock
act Zumpano. They recorded two albums for Sub Pop in 1995 and
1996 before essentially dropping out of music circles, though
no official breakup was ever announced. Neither grunge, post-rock,
“orch pop” nor any of the other flavors of the day,
Zumpano were highly regarded but maintained a low profile. This
changed when Newman resurfaced in 2000 with The New Pornographers,
a benevolent dictatorship - not unlike the American government
– though one which seeks to overturn existing social structures.
Their widely-hailed debut album 'Mass Romantic' brought overdue
attention to Newman’s craft, and in 2003, their second album,
'Electric Version,' became an indie smash and topped the year-end
Now, for the first time, Newman’s out on his own, and the
results are predictably stunning. 'The Slow Wonder' has a beautifully
open and uplifting feel, even as its lyrics often subvert the
sunny vibe. Musically, too, the melodies and arrangements take
unexpected detours which give the songs more depth with each listen.
In contrast to the nonstop anthemic steamroll of The New Pornographers,
'The Slow Wonder' is full of space and surprise. There’s
a sentimental streak in the soaring epic “Secretarial”
and gorgeous ballad “Cloud Prayer” (complete with
trumpet solo). Elsewhere, “Miracle Drug” is a wickedly
frisky guitar number, and “The Battle For Straight Time”
could be the next New Pornos hit, while “Better Than Most”
dials the clock back to Graham Parker’s late-70s quirks.
Though we can't change the past, we'll settle for changing the
future. 'The Slow Wonder' is 34 minutes of the best power pop
you’ve heard, an incredible breath of fresh air in a hostile
era for genuine hand-crafted music.
makes pop so informed by pop royalty that he himself should wear
a crown of jewels.”
-- The Stranger