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Monday, March 17, 2008 

2007: The New Pornographers - Challengers

(A friend asked me what my top ten albums of 2007 were. I don't have an answer in list form. I decided to do ten entries, on ten albums I really loved from 2007, which will certainly have a lot of overlap with my Pazz & Jop and Idolator ballots, although I'm not holding myself to either of those. They will be in no particular order. This is the second.)

Play hearts, kid, they work well

I don't try to be perverse about Canadian indie rock, but I've had people accuse me of it; that the Arcade Fire/Wolf Parade/many other popular Canadian indie bands don't do much for me isn't deliberate, I swear, although if I really tried (maybe with some help from Erik) I might be able to start mapping out what stylistic aspects of the scene I can't stand.

I kind of feel perverse about the way I love the New Pornographers, though. Aside from some highlights, the first two records might as well not exist for me (or could be compressed down to an EP or two), Twin Cinema I liked enough to pick up, and the mostly neglected (in that lukewarm, "yeah, I guess they're good like they're always good" was that is deadly to a working band) Challengers I've fallen hard for; to me it's their most emotional resonant, best (those two qualities often coincide for me but not always) record.

It's got nothing as purely ebullient as "Use It," sure (although even that one had its problems) but in terms of a whole album rather than one shining moment I think I'd prefer the steady thrum of "My Rights Versus Yours" and "All the Old Showstoppers" (and note how the latter pre-empts some of those fan complaints, as well). In the Seconds I just linked I called the New Pornographer's name apt because they skipped right to the climax, the musical money shot, in their songs, and while that's crude it certainly sums up the sugary rush of their early material. Here, and I'm on treacherous ground now, they've forsaken that kind of constant bliss for something that works better as an album. It's got themes (new places, adultery, a certain feeling of being lost, a certain way of singing to the person who makes you not feel lost any more), it's got the best Dan Bejar New Pornographers songs yet (and not just "Myriad Harbour" with its indelible moment of "ALL I EVER NEEDED HELP WITH WAS YOU"), and it's got a hell of a back end.

Seriously, from "Unguided" on we've got pretty much a perfect album. I first heard Challengers at the store without looking at the song titles, and I could have sworn Newman was singing with some fear "something's ungodded in the sky tonight," and the song still sounds to me like he's recoiling from the appearance of Cthulhu or something. This is how this band was going to be able to tackle six and a half minute songs, with wonder and terror and perfect drum punctuation. Note, too, how good Kathryn Calder is here and elsewhere on Challengers. I love Neko too, but we can have both, people.

"Entering White Cecilia" is worth it just for the way the chorus goes "What's eating you tonight? / WHO CARES?" with more joy than malice, and "Go Places" feels like the bittersweet companion to the title track, both about loving someone you probably shouldn't love ("And you live with someone / I live with somebody too / Leave it there"). Sometimes the heart wants terrible things, but at least we can be beautiful about it. "Whatever the mess you are, you're mine, okay?"

"Mutiny, I Promise You" sounded like it might have been pirate themed, but really it's just the best thing Carl Newman has written in ages (and that's high praise indeed), with a completely awesome Newman/Calder chorus before we even get to the bridge that inverts the sense of the title, "here's the mutiny I promised you / And here's the party it turned into." Above all else, this band's songs have been emotionally generous, even to a fault. You'd think "Adventures in Solitude" would be the flipside of "Mutiny, I Promise You," but really it's just more sympathy:

We thought we lost you
We thought we lost you
We thought we lost you
Welcome back

It's pretty and delicate and forgiving enough to begin with, but then it surges into the most breathtaking round, voices slipping in and out of each other,

I know you want to
Run far away from one more
And that's comin' at a bad time
Some cold race
Heartless ways
For all we know

I know you want to
Breathe through
Come back
Come too
But it's comin' at a bad time
Old scarred face
Survivor's guilt
For all we know

Unless my ears are fooling me, this is again mostly Calder. I've never heard her other band, Immaculate Machine, having missed them barely at the last Hillside Festival, but clearly I need to rectify that.

They give the last track to Bejar, though, and this title, "The Spirit of Giving," isn't misleading (even though in the lyrics it briefly turns into "the spirit of giving in"). Bejar sounds like he's grinning as he sings "hey, that picture really captures your mouth," but as with the last song you've got to wait until it all changes, because nothing as generous and humane and heartfelt as Challengers coud end any other way but handclaps, everyone else singing "glad prayer Mary come on," and Bejar eventually, gently urging you: "Your mother was poor your father was poor, whatcha gonna do / About it?" They don't try to answer for you, but god, if there was ever an album that gives you the strength to find your own, this is it.

I think it's telling that this has wound up longer, more emotional and full of more lyric quotations than I'd planned (to the extent that I plan these things at all); the whole point of my love of Challengers is that it keeps surprising me, slipping into my emotional life in unexpected ways and with unexpected power. There's something very Canadian to the warmth at its center, to my mind at least; something worth a million more obviously catchy songs.


Props on being one of the only reviewers to mention the brilliance of "Mutiny, I Promise You," Ian. I had a lot of difficulty with this album on the whole (I think every record they've made is 50% as good as the one before it), but it's ripe for an appeal.

Thanks Dan, I appreciate it. Maybe this is more about me not having got fully into the first two albums, but the real appeal of Challengers to me is that it sounds like the first New Pornographers record to actually possess a beating heart.

That's true, they're kind of a cold and oblique toy factory usually. I'll have to pay attention to those lyrics.

I guess I should give this a spin. I was never really a fan (though I did impulsively buy the second album, to my later regret) and this just didn't register on my radar.

I liked the first two albums when I first listened, but each time through brought diminishing returns. Might be the lack of a heartbeat, or the "sugar rush" aspect you described; might be that I just can't stand Dan Bejar.

Nice writeup on both this and the Phosphorescent album. I look forward to the rest.

Thanks! You kind of provided the impetus, so I'm glad you're enjoying it.

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Ian Mathers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Stylus, the Village Voice, Resident Advisor, PopMatters, and elsewhere. He does stuff and it magically appears here.

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