It’s a debate that predates the Beatles but one that has picked up considerable steam in the last few months as music nerds grapple with the year-end praise heaped on artists like Fleet Foxes and Vampire Weekend. While one sect of the indie-rock community sees the merit of well-crafted songs rooted in familiar musical traditions, Deerhunter fans are pissed, steadfast in their belief that Bradford Cox and co. pushed the envelope the furthest, thereby trumping all others in ’08. And now comes the new Animal Collective record, whose disregard for convention is making an awful lot of people giddy. It’s amid all this that A.C. Newman unleashes his second solo album — probably not the best timing, all things considered.
Newman isn’t really an envelope pusher. He’s just a likable redheaded Canadian who can write hooks in his sleep. With Get Guilty he has created yet another album full of driving melodies and nuanced quirks, a record that sounds like M. Ward crossed with Syd Barrett, but also one that takes the next logical step in a career approaching the seminal. As the frontman for indie supergroup the New Pornographers, he’s spent a fair amount of time flanked by Neko Case, Dan Bejar and a who’s who of Canucks Who Rock, playing elaborate, upbeat numbers. The Slow Wonder, his first solo offering, saw him stripping away a lot of the lushness in favor of quieter, more introspective songs. Get Guilty reintroduces the rock, this time wrapping mostly uptempo tunes in tender idiosyncrasies. Longing, operatic strings open the album. “There are maybe ten or twelve things I could teach you/After that, well I think you’re on your own,” he sings, taking an off-kilter pause after “twelve.” Newman’s doughy voice was made for this. On “The Palace at 4 A.M.” Jon Wurster’s (Superchunk/Mountain Goats) drums gleefully skitter round and round, but there are little things, like the way Newman says “palace” — sharply, urgently, like a cry for help — and bittersweet ba ba bas (Nicole Atkins also lends vocals on the album) that blindside you.
The master songsmith has made the best kind of pop-rock record: a bittersweet one. He may not be pushing the envelope a any substantial way, but he refuses to stagnate. Within his own career, he’s pushing things forward — perhaps a better indicator of an album’s worth than how much it relies on established pop traditions.