If you’re a fan of A.C. Newman or perhaps his band The New Pornographers, you probably already know about his densely layered pop melodies and musically adventurous song craft. Even if you’re not a fan of his, you can’t really deny that Newman applies many styles easily into each of his songs. Each note is crafted; for example, each strained vocal, falsetto flourish, and choral harmony are meticulously joined in each tune (and that’s just the vocals!).
Now I’m not here to gush about Newman’s familiar experimentalism and even if I was, this record seems rather similar to a lot of Newman’s other work. His love affair with 60s pop, as melodically detailed as it is, seems a little tired in some ways. I like A.C. Newman but, if I hadn’t heard his acoustic performance on a radio show, I may not have even sought out this record at all. The performance that piqued my interest came on the heels of his first solo album. Both “Most of Us Prizefighters” and “Drink to Me, Babe, Then” immediately struck me. In addition to Newman’s strikingly unique voice, the acoustic setting truly demonstrated the power of the song with nothing but a couple of guitars to hide behind. The actual album on the other hand, buried the melodies behind many tracks and I found myself trying hard to break through the surface.
“The Slow Wonder” and “Get Guilty” certainly have different melodies and unique technical structures (though the latter probably more akin in feel to a New Pornographers record). While “The Slow Wonder” seems a bit more restrained and down-tempo at times (relatively), “Get Guilty” seems a bit like a pitcher who wastes no time between pitches. Before you know it, you’re halfway through the album and the songs have slipped by without a second thought.
This is not to say that the record does not have strong moments, it has plenty. “The Palace at 4 A.M.” particularly demonstrates simple effective pop songwriting (albeit with obscure lyrics). The percussion propels the song between driving verses and slower choruses. In order to really get into the meaning or theme of the song, you really have to give it lots of listens (but the melodies are certainly more accessible than the lyrics). The next song “The Changeling (Get Guilty)” begins a string of more accessible tunes. Its chorus implores the listener to “Change Your Mind” and the simplicity here is certainly appreciated. “Elemental” continues on a similar path. Right out front, Newman’s simple and unique singing demonstrate shis proficiency as a vocalist in addition to technical songwriting prowess. While the growth may not yield a stylistic change, the songs have backed off a bit on intricate layers of production.
Many reviewers on other websites will decry a “safe” record that sounds like either the previous one or some other obscure artist that only music snobs have heard. Despite my propensity toward the rootsy stuff, I certainly appreciate strongly crafted tunes and Newman has a firm handle on that. While at times I wish he’d try a stylistic shift from the lush dense electric sounds, each simpler rootsier arrangement left me wanting more. I don’t think he’ll make a country record, but the slightly more adventurous and organic acoustic sounds aren’t absent from the mix. Not a huge leap, but a solid effort from Newman. Hints of more sonic simplicity certainly are encouraging.
About the author: Jeff is a teacher in the Boston area. When not buried correcting papers, Jeff can be found plucking various stringed instruments and listening to all types of americana music.