The New Pornographers were a happy accident. A side project for musicians in Vancouver and the Pacific Northwest, the band had been gestating for five years before releasing Mass Romantic in 2000. That album — and the two that followed — was full of inventive songs whose exuberance matched their wit and allowed the band to refine and almost redefine power pop.
The strong dynamic between so many different and diverse musicians has made the New Pornographers' fourth album, Challengers, one of the most highly anticipated releases of the year. As expected, it's full of resourceful melodies and clever lyrics, but little hunger. It's not that the band is losing steam or even running out of ideas, just that they sound reserved, which doesn't suit an album carrying this title.
"My Rights Versus Yours" sets the tone: As the verses chug along, Carl Newman turns a simple phrase — "a new empire in rags" — into a respectable hook and then draws the song out in an instrumental coda that grasps for the drama of "Bones of an Idol." The big push sounds muted, though, and it's hard to tell if it's by accident or by design. To an extent, it seems the band is deliberately withholding the caffeinated energy they're known and loved for, but if so, to what end? Why the switch to decaf?
It's hard to say. Even intended anthems "Unguided" and "Go Places" sound limp and uninspired. Neko Case never gets a worthy showcase for her defining vocals, and drummer Kurt Dahle, whose beats gave previous albums their kick, sounds hamstrung throughout. He gets to cut loose on "All the Things That Go To Make Heaven and Earth," but mostly he can only keep midtempo time as his drums are pushed deep in the mix.
Only songwriter Dan Bejar really shines on Challengers; his typically eccentric compositions contain the album's best moments, like the call and response with the band on "Myriad Harbour" and the contrast between the shuffling verses and the lush chorus on "Entering White Cecilia." He alone seems to understand that with the New Pornographers, more is more. Or, as Case sings laconically on "Go Places": "The heart will always take one step too far." Challengers rarely goes the distance. — SD