There’s never been any doubt that the New Pornographers were a talented bunch, though it never quite felt like they knew how to tie their group together. Among the most prominent members of the nine-ish strong collective are Carl Newman, established singer-songwriter in his own right, Neko Case, ever present alt-country maven, and Dan Bejar, better known as the mad scientist figure behind the enigmatic Destroyer. Newman and Bejar contribute songs, Case makes them sound pretty, and the five or six other people there play along — at least that’s how the formula always seemed to work. Outside elements, like their consistently terrible album art and the rising popularity of each member’s solo career, always sustained the idea that the New Pornographers were more a “project” than a band — but with Challengers, that’s starting to change.
Newman’s and Bejar’s songs are still split, Bejar’s always a shade more cryptic and patient, but there’s a lot more restraint here than either has ever shown. Newman’s contributions aren’t as abrasively hooky as they’ve been in the past, and he holds back on writing harmonies into every line. There are even moments, like on the album opener ‘My Rights Versus Yours,’ where only five or six people are playing at once. It’s a big step for a band that used to open each song with a bang of a hook and not let up for the requisite three and a half minutes. Somehow they’ve learned the gift of dynamics — maybe they actually listened to the last Destroyer record.
The other running complaint about the New Pornographers is that their lyrics are too oblique, and nothing’s changed in that department. Newman’s songs always sound smart and meaningful, but it’s unclear whether there’s anything deeper to them. While it’s hard to fault someone for attempting subtlety, it’s harder to deny that most of his songs, while fun and energetic, are really pretty emotionless. Still, they’re trying to stretch their formula, and even if this album’s six-minute track is a dud, it could be a step in the right direction. And if it’s not, there’ll surely be some good solo records on the way.