For the past decade and a half, the Canadian power pop outfit the New Pornographers have been churning out one critically hailed album after the next. From the expertly executed indie pop rock of their 2000 debut, Mass Romantic, to the sometimes wistful but always powerful songwriting that drove 2010’s Together, the band has always had something substantial to offer fans with every one of their full length works.
In August, the band released Brill Bruisers, an album that feels more celebratory than the shaky, tightly wound, enthralling anxiety that propels much of the band’s earlier work. “Born With a Sound” and “War On the East Coast” both rock out pretty hard (lots of satisfying guitar throttling) while exploring lyrical territory that sounds more optimistic than anything songwriters Carl Newman and Daniel Bejar have toyed with ever before. “War On the East Coast” has singer Carl Newman reiterating over and over again that he “does not care,” and the Superchunk-esque “Born with a Sound,” rollicks like any good song-about-music should.
“Well, I would say it sounds like record number six,” says band leader, Carl Newman (Also known as A.C. Newman, an artist with a number of excellent solo records under his belt). “I know some people think it’s closer to our older records, but I’m not exactly sure which one. When I think about it, if it’s closest to any record, it’s probably closest to Mass Romantic, yet I don’t really understand why.”
“It’s strange; I really have no perspective on this record,” says Newman. “I really wanted it to have a feel, I really wanted it to be smooth and I wanted it to be a rock record, but very easy to listen to. I wanted to make it a little less jarring in some aspects, I think that is the main difference between this and past records.”
Newman says to achieve that sweet-nectar-to-your-ears effect that Brill Bruisers carries off so easily, the band wrote the songs with a meticulous attention to detail. “Like in past records we used to have bridges in the songs, and I don’t know where they come from, really,” he says. “With this record we were trying to make something easy on the ears.”
The album’s title alludes to classic Brill building songwriters like Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Burt Bacharach and Hal David and so many more. Even though creating palatable music was a goal shared by the history of Brill building songwriting and Newman as he approached the New Pornographers latest release, Newman says that it was more than the historical significance of the album title that made it feel like just the “right” thing to call the band’s sixth album.
“The title just seemed right somehow,” says Newman. “Like, this isn’t really a concept album, where I feel like the album title sums up the album; the title was just some words that came together I thought, ‘Yeah, this describes this record.’ I can’t say exactly how or why but I looked at those words and went ‘Yes.’ I looked at the record and thought ‘Yeah, this record is called “Brill Bruisers,” just like Mass Romantic is called “Mass Romantic.”’ Those words seem right; some words are filled with portent and you have to trust your instincts.”
Newman has a history of stringing together words that aren’t typically associated with each other within the body of his work. An interesting turn of phrase is debatably what catapults the New Pornographer’s discography from “great” to “classic.” Newman says that coming up with lines like “Some hackneyed fairy tale I'd move outta their dreams/ It's what they do/ Stepping to/ Marching ten paces in front of you” from the cut “Marching Orders” isn’t as effortless as one might imagine coming from a guy who has a discography oozing with surreal lyrics.
“I don’t know, the melodies and the chords always come first, so it’s just trying to find something good that fits in there [lyrically], that part of it is more in a slog,” says Newman. “I feel like music pops into my head more freely than lyrics do. I don’t know, it’s very similar to working on the music itself, you just start working and you’re not sure what you’re going to come up with but you know when you hit it.”
“It’s a strange process,” he says of writing lyrics. “Sometimes, I go back and listen to my lyrics and I have to ask myself, ‘Where did they come from?’ I just know it was a lot of work and I know there was a point where I was staring at a blank page. It’s like being any other type of writer I suppose, you just have to get over the hump of starting.”
In September, Newman and the rest of the band were busy gearing up to kickstart their tour, a lengthy jaunt that has been taking the throughout Canada, the U.S. and eventually into Europe next month. In preparation for the first couple of dates, Newman had begun compiling a “master list” of songs to pull from for setlists throughout the tour.
“There are songs that we haven’t played in nine years that we’re planning on playing on this tour,” says Newman. “There’s a song that I put on the master list that we haven’t played in 10 years, ‘The New Face of Zero and One,’ which we played on the Electric Version tour and then when Twin Cinema came out it got put back on the backburner. It’s fun to go back through the years and try and figure out what we’re going to play this time.”
With “The New Face of Zero and One” in particular, Newman says that it was interesting because he hadn’t played the song since 2004, and even though he’s the one who penned the tune, (one of the highlights off Electric Version, an album that, some might say, is full of nothing but highlights,) he remarked that he had a hard time remembering exactly what it sounded like.
“It’s a strange feeling,” says Newman of getting together the setlists for the Brill Bruiser tour. “When I’m trying to put together set lists, I’ll listen to the Electric Version and Twin Cinema and, really, I think that those records were, in their way, a little more off kilter.”
Newman said that he’s pretty excited to return to Cleveland.
“We’re playing at the House of Blues, so I think that means we get into the Rock Hall for free,” he says. “We’ll definitely do that.”
New Pornographers, The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 15, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $25.50-$32, houseofblues.com.