Are The New Pornographers history’s first reverse supergroup? Maybe that's the sort of soundbite that unravels if you think about it too much, but the Vancouver-centred collective have certainly had a pretty loopy career trajectory. When they first came together, for 2000’s peerless power pop masterpiece Mass Romantic, it’s probably fair to say that despite how radically different its three lead singers sounded from each other, the band was the biggest thing any of its members had going on, and this is something that probably remained true until at least the release of their other peerless power pop masterpiece, 2005’s Twin Cinema.
Since then, both Neko Case and Dan ‘Destroyer’ Bejar have gone on to a level of success that’s dwarfed that of the band, and given that the New Pornos are broadly speaking the creation of Carl Newman, you wouldn’t be shocked if the group’s two most famous members quietly ducked out.
But they haven't, and you suspect this is a really big deal to the band, because consciously or not, all New Pornos records since Twin Cinema have had titles replete with togetherness and collective intent – Challengers, Together, and now Brill Bruisers. And perhaps the most striking thing about the band’s sixth set is how integrated the four singers sound - though Bejar and Case clearly still have their ‘spots’ to some extent, the other singers pop up on each other’s songs, with Case and Newman sharing the mic on multiple occasions and Bejar’s numbers either drenched in backing vocals from Case and Kathryn Calder - the beautiful/creepy ‘Born with a Sound’ is even a Bejar-Calder duet of sorts. It’s actually the first album in the Pornos’ career that sounds like all however-many-of-them there are were in the studio at the same time, and it’s the first upon which Newman doesn’t necessarily come across as the dominant voice.
Most importantly, Brill Bruisers is very good, informed by the baroque-pop ornamentation of Together, but with a return to the concision, melodicism and dynamism of the band’s first three records. It opens with the title track, which pretty much sets the record’s stall out – it’s sunny, it’s snappy, Newman’s voice is cradled in ornate “baba-ba-ba” backing vocals from the ladies, there’s a cool middle-eight, there’s that curious Pornos frisson of passionate delivery meeting lyrics that are basically incompressible (something that seems to work better for the band when a song has a bit more pizzazz to it).
Perhaps because of the restlessly shifting complexity of the vocal arrangements and short track lengths, there’s a certain flow to the album – a pleasing homogeneity even – that means it can be hard to even credit the fact there are 13 songs on there. The feel approaches that one continuous movement, or lots of little ones, a bubble bath of lustrous sound. That’s not to say moments don’t stand out: ‘Dancefloor Domine’ is twee pop of the most ruthlessly catchy order, ‘Backstairs’s eerie “there is another west” chorus is a grade-A ear worm, ‘Champions of Red Wine’ proffers Challengers -style introspection without the clunky naval gazing. But it’s much harder to spot the joins now. Where before Bejar kind of sounded like the mad scientist who’d crashed everyone else’s party, now his songs now comes liberally doused in Calder, and are in any case as close to Newman’s sensibilities as he’s ever likely to get – the fuzz bomb pop of ‘War on the East Coast’ is probably the most tuneful thing he’ll ever do without an actual voice transplant, while the excellent ‘Born with a Sound’ segues seamlessly from Caulder’s lovely ‘Another Drug Deal of the Heart’.
At the risk of banging on about it, Brill Bruisers – like most albums – isn’t as good as Mass Romantic. But its qualities are manifold, and it is a delight to note that after some 15 years together, the New Pornographers seems to have stopped being a supergroup and turned into a band.
7Andrzej Lukowski's Score