Brill Bruisers, the sixth outing by all-star pop collective the New Pornographers, veritably explodes to life with the album-opening title track. The instruments burst forward with the sort of harmonized nonsense syllables that have been the hallmark of rock ‘n’ roll from the beginning, providing the time-tested signal that catchiness is more imperative than language. This record is the follow-up to a couple of releases that weren’t all that well-regarded (2010’s Together and 2007’s Challengers), making that surge of sound into something like a statement of revived purpose. ‘There was a time when you all loved us,’ it seems to say. ‘Remember that? Remember why?’ Brill Bruisers does provide a handy reminder of the dizzying glories to be found when A.C. Newman assembles his cheerily melodic Avengers, but it also betrays some of the reasons why those who once swooned over, say, Twin Cinema (as I surely did) might find the newer material a little inconsequential around the edges.
Part of the appeal of any New Pornographers release is the way Newman and his cohorts seem to be shaping the radio station of their dreams, playing around with different forms and styles while also committing themselves to the craft of writing solid, well thought out songs. An album from the band might have a uniform voice, but it sings all over the range and often wants to hit notes that that previously eluded it. On Brill Bruisers, the latter deviation manifests with a slight but discernible embrace of electronic tinkling, as if an earthier version of early-to-mid-eighties Giorgio Moroder showed up to give the album one last polish between the recording process and the pressing of the vinyl. “Champions of Red Wine” has tender trills that sound imported from the Electric Dreams soundtrack, and “Dancehall Domine” charges forward like an LCD Soundsystem knockoff. And then there are those instances that simply sound like vintage New Pornographers, which is just another way of saying the best tracks are poppy, driving, and wonderful. There’s a great Neko Case lead vocal on “Marching Orders,” for instance, with her wrapping her ringing, keening tones around great lyrics (“Let’s put this countdown clock away/ Unfinished parts of the death ray on the lawn/ Let them rust/ Turn to dust”) as a reminder that, as accomplished as her solo career has been, she often hits new highs when she punches the clock with this band.
On a recent episode of WTF with Marc Maron, Mac McCaughan of Superchunk and Merge Records talked about his discovery process as a music fan, noting that at a certain point he moved on from the scattered brashness of reactionary punk rock to groups that had greater capabilities to write “real songs.” That’s kind of who the New Pornographers are: the group that’s fully and fiercely committed to the creation of “real songs.” Welcome as it is, there’s also a downside. There’s little sense of spontaneity to the tracks, which are instead defined by a meticulousness that can wind up deadening the song. They recall another artist prone to such troubles with “Another Drug Deal of the Heart,” which sounds like a Magnetic Fields song circling in on itself into a repetitive oblivion. It’s an admittedly infinitesimal line between that flaw as a genuine fault of overt craftsmanship and the jaded impatience of a listener, but I can only report how it strikes my ears. I think Brill Bruisers sounds great. Sometimes I wish it sounded messier.