Prepare Your Heart Not to Stop (Too Soon)
446 · 14 August 03
The New Pornographers: Electric Version
The New Pornographers are the band you must now have an opinion about to participate in rock-critic culture, in the way that Radiohead and Sleater-Kinney once were. Why you would want to participate in such a thing, I will propose no theories, but the good news is that if you do, you do not have to devise a new opinion of your own, you simply have to learn this one: The New Pornographers are the best indie/garage/glam/pop/summer band in the world, their second album Electric Version is brilliant from start to finish, and they are at the absolute pinnacle of their fundamentally incomparable powers when they let Neko Case sing. It's best if you say this in as bubbly and breathless a manner as possible. You should use the word "perfect" at least once, and you are strongly encouraged to state, in the interest of world-wide solidarity, that anybody who questions the band's perfection has thus demonstrated an essential character flaw. If you're having trouble phrasing this, Mint Records' page for the band has pull-quote examples from every major written-media outlet that covers music, and most of the minor ones, so feel free to cut and paste.
While you're cutting and pasting, though, you might as well have a listen to what you're endorsing. No need to buy the album, it's the internet age and the RIAA can go fuck themselves (except the New Pornographers are from Canada, but don't quibble). So download "Letter From an Occupant", which was track six of Mass Romantic, their first album. And get "The Laws Have Changed", the third track from this new one. Hit Play.
Musically speaking, "Letter From an Occupant" is simple, blaring, repetitive and snarly. Much of it is too noisy for detail, the bridge is downright cacophonous, and the ooh-ing second-halves of the choruses may well strike you as cloying or silly. It doesn't make a bit of difference whether you think the thing plods like a mastodon on the verge of heatstroke, though. Neko Case wants the mastodon to fly, and she will pick the mangy beast up by its ears and whirl it around her head, if that's what it takes. She sings like she's performing a national anthem from orbit, and there's not really anywhere to hide.
If "Letter From an Occupant" is irresistible, "The Laws Have Changed" is as immanent as celestial mechanics. This time they've written music that Neko doesn't have to beat a new nature into, a galloping, wheezing, loud-soft-loud anthem for runaway calliopes, with eyes-rolled-back falsetto backing-vocals behind Neko, and one of the male singers getting in front of her just long enough that you notice how happy you are when she elbows him out of the way again. This is where Guided by Voices and the Go-Go's would have collided, or Cheap Trick and Sleater-Kinney. You'll want to sing along, until you realize you don't know quite what they're saying most of the time. So you work out something that seems about right ("Phero-wa!-mone microphones"?), and try again, except this time you realize that when you sing as loud as the song makes you want to, you can't hear Neko anymore, which is wildly unacceptable. So you shut up again, and whimper along with the guitars in helpless awe, with a desperate buzz in your scalp pleading that this time the flying mastodon will turn out to be you.
You will, of course, want to hear more. So go swipe "All for Swinging You Around" next, since that reads like how you feel. This one won't sound as revelatory if you already knew about the middle Three O'Clock albums, admittedly, and here Neko gets the verses to herself but has to share the choruses, which is kind of the reverse of what you really want. But the drums sputter and snap, the bass grumbles exuberantly, and even a song without as much Neko as it could have had is better than none. Get the swooping, chirping "Miss Teen Wordpower", too, which could have turned the Scripps-Howard documentary Spellbound into Josie and the Pussycats single-handedly. There's not quite enough Neko again, though, in exactly the way that Spellbound could easily have been a whole movie of that one hyper-spastic kid's facial contortions and robot voices. In places she is reduced to backing vocals, at which point she could be anyone. If you wanted to hear anyone, you'd be listening to something else.
And if you go ahead and download the rest of the album, you'll be listening to something else whether you want to or not. There are ten other songs, and if they were all you knew of the New Pornographers, you would never guess that the unidentifiable female singer occasionally audible in the background is capable of completely transforming the band. Without Neko's hands on their ears, the other mastodons are a grounded herd. And without Neko's hands on yours, you may well discover that you feel no differently, or that you feel differently, but still thrilled. In their Neko-less mode, the New Pornographers are like Sloan having a humidity-swamped Elephant 6 nightmare, or like Robert Pollard and Billy Corgan seeing which one can string together the longest smug series of old FM radio hooks without cracking up. When I love this, like when they cross the Three O'Clock's fey sparkle with Jimmy Eat World's taut drive on "It's Only Divine Right", I wonder if without Neko they might have had fewer great songs but been a better band.
And when I hate this, which is the rest of the time, I know that making these records with only a little of Neko's involvement was a horrific mistake. I am sick to death of indie musicians playing ostensibly uplifting songs with a suffocating air of glibly self-satisfied superficiality. I was already sick of garage rock when it hadn't even been revived yet, and I wanted to strangle Andy Partridge long before Elephant 6 or Kindercore or Beck were conceived. Hundreds, if not thousands (if not hundreds), of people will tell you this is the perfect summer album, or the perfect pop album, or some other perfect terrible thing. If you can find a way to believe them, do it. Summers are far too short, and if this album can make you happier, and I can't, then be sick of me.
But if I know anything, and surely I know something, then I believe that unanimity in taste is invariably suspicious. The more people line up behind this album, the more I wonder who is missing. I'm not the only person who finds the Neko-less New Pornographers willfully insufferable, math alone assures me of that. I'm not the only one who hates how vividly they sound like they've read their own press clippings, how much they seem to be enjoying pandering to people who would never have come to see the members' other bands, how many clichés they appropriate under the flimsy pretense of homage (or irony, depending on how you corner them). I'm not nearly the only one who hates them for not handing Neko the microphone and making a whole album that would reveal how misplaced the superlatives for these first two scattered ones have been.
And maybe you think I'm crazy, but maybe you're another one. Maybe, even if you aren't, when you're done being happy you'll need a change. Better to love than hate, obviously, especially while the weather holds, but maybe in the fall, as you're getting your heavy coats out again, you'll remember that the other seasons have purposes, too. Love beats hate, in the shortest and longest terms, but sometimes hate sees farther. I hate this record because every person who calls it perfect simultaneously diminishes perfection, and the album this could have been, and themselves. Are we so incapable of judgment, now, that we can't even see flaws when they're the subject of what we're praising? The New Pornographers have written two great imperfect songs that weigh their own albums like built-in scales for how woefully far beneath them the twenty-three other songs are, two deliriously human songs that render accusations of perfection inherently repugnant. If we stand for this, failing the simplest of all tests in upholding or applying standards, don't we waive the right to ask anything of anybody, and with it the responsibility for our own effort? If this is all we mean by perfection, these stolen songs without even pride, then isn't dreaming obviated by memory? And if we can't remember anything bigger or smaller than perfection to dream of, why do we think we awake?
The Notwist: Neon Golden
It's a grand salvation that perfection is so rarely useful, because neither is it necessarily attainable. In the New Pornographers' case, it's hard for me to imagine how Neko could be available for backing vocals throughout the album, yet not available for more leads, but maybe there's something I'm missing. Maybe she has religious strictures, or her solo contracts have a complicated non-compete clause. Maybe there's a reason, and the rest of the band did the best they could within unreleasable constraints. Or, far more mundanely, maybe they've been writing the best songs they know how, and they've just only come up with two great ones so far. Millions of musicians have lived and died without making anything as good as "Letter From and Occupant" or "The Laws Have Changed". If you have just two great lucky songs in you, what do you do? Release them, and undermine your other work? Or hold them, and try to build a smaller career on the kind of lesser song you know how to produce repeatably? Listeners obviously want them released. What do we care if a bunch of indie musicians from Vancouver end up burning out faster and have to get boring office jobs? We've got boring office jobs already, and at least now we have two more songs to get us through them.
It's a harder question to answer from the other side. Maybe Neko lead-vocals could have elevated every song on Electric Version, instruments unmodified, and the album was thus no more than a few extra studio hours away from uncontestable immortality. But take, instead, the Notwist's 2002 album Neon Golden, belatedly released this year in the US. Twelve of the thirteen tracks on this edition mold clicky instrumentation, like trance-dub Penguin Café Orchestra, around hushed, melancholy vocals, for an impression of sorts of what Radiohead's Hail to the Thief might have become by trading alienated histrionics for focus. Left to themselves, those dozen songs form a coherent, cohesive, complex and potentially compelling album. Confident, self-aware art can partially dictate the terms of its reception, and without one song Neon Golden could have written its own minimalist rules. In this fractured context, the beepy "One Step Inside Doesn't Mean You Understand" could have been a lullaby, "Pilot" a fast slow-dance, "Trashing Days" post-modern bluegrass, "This Room" twittery New Wave, "Neon Golden" trippy retro, "Off the Rails" string-lashed and oblique, "Consequence" a love song, the final triptych defiantly taciturn abstraction. We would have listened closer, if we listened at all, because there would have been no other direction in which to listen. We might have heard something.
But we don't get the chance. Neon Golden suffers, as surely as Radiohead's Kid A or the Delgados' Hate, from One Single Syndrome. In the middle of this album is a three-and-a-half-minute pop gem called "One With the Freaks", its style an arrestingly meticulous transposition of the emotional logic of Red House Painters' cover of the Cars' "All Mixed Up" onto the energy of their own later "Byrd Joel". It starts with some of the same clicks the other songs are wired over, but after a minute the guitars start to shimmer and chime, and after a minute and a half the drums give in and set up a groove. "As you long for intuition, / As you have to learn the lesson twice." This album could have defined its own success metrics. But not now, not after this. One clanging, bouncing, yearning, open-hearted pop song, and thousands of clanging, bouncing, yearning, open-hearted pop songs before it trail away into history, and it's pointless to ask us to do anything but fall in love in exactly the ways we know best. And then there we are, pop-song bleary and lovelorn hopeless, wanting more chances to keep feeling this way, irretrievably lost to algebra and angles and the calculated pleasures.
But what should they have done? They have an album of distracted clicks and whirs, and a pop song that might make the world swoon. What would you have done? If you love your record, maybe you save it from itself. These are the things we say we'd do. We know what selflessness and discipline require. We know that the whole is not the parts. Test us on paper, and we'll always ace these questions. Theory is easy. But greatness in practice is different. Our creations, like our children, reach our hearts directly. We fall in love, singing, in the ways we know from listening. Lovelorn and dreaming, wanting more chances to keep feeling this way, we forget the math and the lessons, and fail what we hope are the right tests.