The New Pornographers latest record, Brill Bruisers, highlights a major problem this particular band has for which most other bands would kill. But before we get into that, let’s think about that album title for a second.
For those that don’t know, the Brill Building is a music-industry office building in Manhattan where some of the most famous and popular songs of the 20th century were written. Tin Pan Alley, you know the drill. Where some might see music as a release, or a means of self-expression, these people saw dollar signs. To those who could make it at the Brill Building, music was big business, and for a number of decades, business was very good.
A similar situation is true within the New Pornographers. Neko Case, Dan Bejar, and A.C. Newman are three huge names in independent pop circles, but the entire eight-person band runs top to bottom with supremely high-caliber, and more importantly professional, songwriters and performers. Newman or Bejar pen most of the tracks and Case usually sings the female lead and most prominent harmony, but everyone present lends their individual talents to each shimmering, finely-crafted number. The New Pornographers albums are a feast for the ears, so much sunshine, so much spirit-lifting.
Brill Bruisers keeps those good times rolling, leaping off from a five-alarm title / opening track and first single to careen through propulsive major key pop saturated with la-la-las and oo-oo-oos. The indie pop anthems are so well-done, in fact, that not a single one of them stands out. This record sounds fantastic, with truly world-class melodies and arrangements catalyzing an energetic voyage through what a gifted team of spectacular talents can do. It’s just that the final tally adds up to something less than the sum of its parts.
Mostly this is a function of the band’s essential nature. In a more literal era, they could have called this record Indie Super Friends Enjoy Each Other’s Company. You can hear how much fun everyone is having with the production (even, maybe, the reclusive Bejar), but that doesn’t translate to a cohesive, impactful album-long listen. More to that point, the best way to listen to Brill Bruisers is while doing something else. Working, cleaning, doing the dishes, folding laundry: something to distract your mind from probing too deeply into these compositions.
Under those circumstances, Brill Bruisers makes for a delightful, brisk 44 minutes of work-a-day life. On a focused listen, the bottom drops out quickly. The lyrics function better as sounds set to music than ideas deserving contemplation, and the New Pornographers, as usual, place craft and arrangement virtuosity over instrumental pyrotechnics. Apparently one member of the group also got a new synthesizer or something, as there’s a weird strand of ‘80s videogame synth running through the song cycle that only seems necessary if someone were promised in advance they could add it whenever they wanted, no strings attached. Perhaps somebody lost a bet. I don’t know.
As the tunes run their course, the images that begin to take shape in an undistracted mind have less to do with personal emotional journeys and more to do with online universities, credit card bonus plans, and young attractive people kissing in the foreground as fireworks go off in the distance behind them. In other words, these songs are perfect for any number of available marketing opportunities. This is not the fault of the New Pornographers, except that they do nothing to dispel the notion that such circumstances are for what these tracks were written. Brill Bruisers hangs together only insofar as these songs are ordered sequentially; as a journey all told, there isn’t a whole lot here on which to hang one’s hat.
There is nothing wrong with Brill Bruisers whatsoever (except for maybe that synth), but there’s nothing super right about it, either. The New Pornographers formula reads thusly: very famous people who are very good at what they do make music together every couple years; they release a record, and they tour on it; it sounds like a hell of a lot of fun. To their credit, the New Pornographers seem to understand that lovely pop music doesn’t just happen, that it takes a great deal of skill and focus to manufacture pleasant moments with guitars and drums and keyboards. They can turn and burn a slick pop record like few bands going.
If that’s enough for you, then you’re going to love Brill Bruisers. The New Pornographers are betting that it will be.