What a difference a decade makes.
Almost 10 years ago, The New Pornographers, the band behind the one of the best recorded catalogs of the 2000s, released its least enjoyable album, Together. After three near-perfect records out of the gate (2000’s Mass Romantic, 2003’s Electric Version and 2005’s Twin Cinema) and another that’s still really good (2007’s Challengers), the forgettable back half of Together (and a couple clunky arrangements) felt like a potential first step into a downhill slide.
A decade later, The New Pornographers are back on an upward trajectory as the 2010s come to a close. Carl Newman and his motley assemblage of power-pop heroes have not only just released their third straight outstanding album, In the Morse Code of Brake Lights, they’ve continued a killer second act and cemented themselves as one of the great bands of the era.
In a way, it seems like their catalog is repeating itself. Where Twin Cinema was a slower, moodier affair than Mass Romantic and Electric Version, so too is Morse Code as compared with its predecessors, 2014’s new wave-y Brill Bruisers and 2017’s leaner, meaner Whiteout Conditions. A lot of that feeling lives in the album’s middle: throughout the leisurely pace of “Higher Beams,” the hyperactive strings all over “Dreamlike and On the Rush” and the downcast vibe of “You Won’t Need Those Where You’re Going,” a short, stark piano ballad that finds Newman embracing life’s uncertainty. “We’re raw footage, still unedited,” he sings plainly. “It’s awkward, rough and repetitive.”
Newman’s lyrical tone has never matched the exhilarating style of his songs; even so, he seems to be bracing himself for something bad on Morse Code. Recurring themes include war, collapse, break-ins, brewing storms and travels fraught with peril. There is no song here as overtly political as the Trump-anxiety anthem “High Ticket Attractions” from Whiteout Conditions, but it’s clear our country’s current climate has permeated Newman’s songwriting. The fact that he’s a Canadian expat living in New York puts these lines from “Higher Beams” in particularly high contrast:
Deep in the culture of fear, we all hate living here
But you know when you can’t afford to leave?
So you stay in the lines, navigate the land mines
Should have gone for the guided tour
But if there is one thing The New Pornographers’ discography has taught us, it’s that no matter Carl Newman’s state of mind, he’s still one of the best composers of pop-rock songs on the planet. Morse Code overflows with irresistible hooks, from the twinkling keys in the background of “You’ll Need A Backseat Driver” to the roller-coaster melodies of “The Surprise Knock,” the kosmische synth wash of “Colossus of Rhodes” to the addictive call-and-response vocals on “Need Some Giants.”
And then there’s lead single “Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile,” a masterclass of arrangement wherein a cascading bass line, chugging acoustic guitar, crisp handclaps, intertwining male/female vocals and a few weird noises work together to create a song that stands out amongst a bunch of standout songs. (It’s worth noting here that the women in the band—new member Simi Stone, longtime linchpin Kathryn Calder and the incomparable Neko Case—give The New Pornographers an arsenal of vocalists that would be the envy of many rock ‘n’ roll bands.)
In the Morse Code of Brake Lights is the second consecutive New Pornos album without a handful of songs written and performed by Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, who contributed tunes to each of the band’s first six records. Some will argue his presence is missed—that the band now lacks the variety it once had. That may be true, but the trade-off is worth it: After years of feeling like an experiment, then a hobby (albeit a very productive one) and then a band pulling in a couple different directions, The New Pornographers now have coalesced around Carl Newman and his singular vision. Twenty years into their existence, they seem stronger than ever.