Being in a band for two decades means deciding whether to keep spinning old tricks with each new release or to take the odd musical risk in the hopes it pays off.
A.C. Newman knows this well. Having been at the helm of Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers since their genesis in 1997, he’s been instrumental in steering the now eight-piece through new stylings and a changing staff roster.
The power pop band’s 2019 release, In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights, was yet another sidestep from its predecessor’s sound, drifting away from the ‘power’ and more towards the ‘pop’.
Tracks like ‘Colossus of Rhodes’ and ‘One Kind of Solomon’ are packed with cosmic synth and chaotic, arpeggiated string lines. Is the old college rock sound a thing of the past? Not necessarily. Even though it’s less frequent nowadays, Newman points to ongoing projects like Car Seat Headrest that are still producing a sound that encapsulates skateboarding down the hill as a teen. Rest assured, coming-of-age films will still have plenty of source material for their soundtracks.
“After making three records that were pretty upbeat pop, I wanted to mess around with ballads to keep myself entertained,” Newman says.
“I’ve always loved the Electric Light Orchestra, I’ve always loved the over-the-top strings, so I thought I’d try and do that [for Brake Lights].”
Literally from the first track to the last, the album is filled with car references. It wasn’t intentional at the start, Newman tells me, but once he picked up on the subconscious trend, the wheels kept on turning. It’s not an unusual choice of metaphor among music folklore. Think Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run or anything by Lana Del Rey.
“The idea of the car in pop music is so iconic. The idea of a car that takes you away or helps you escape from somewhere … It’s a metaphor that applies to a lot of things in life,” Newman says.
Perhaps what the band are looking to escape is shared by many across America. Their preceding album, Whiteout Conditions, was released in April 2017, just months after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Needless to say, it was too late to change the production schedule, but with Brake Lights, it’s a different story. References to wreckage, break-ins, and a “culture of fear” are scattered throughout the album, all thanks to the hindsight of the past three years.
“I’ve been living in America for quite a long time now, almost 15 years. It’s stressful. It makes you feel sad and angry a lot of the time,” Newman says.
“I have a son who’s almost eight, and it’s hard. You want to show your child a better world, a world where there’s justice … A lot of that I think comes through.”
When asked about the state of the world, many high-profile figures will shy away from politics. Politicians will call for a tragedy not to be politicised, lest it draw attention to their failures. ‘Now is not the time’ is their calling cry. For Newman, politics has finally gotten in the way, and there was no choice but to approach it in his songwriting.
“I never try to write overtly political songs, but it’s hard not to. You can’t escape it,” he says. “Even me writing about my feelings in the past few years, you can’t help but be political because it’s all wrapped up.”
With the presidential election slated for November, Brake Lights documented a new era with a new voice, all while promising there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Regardless of what the polls bring, The Pornos have admitted the personal is political in their latest release, and it’s hard to turn back from that.
The New Pornographers are coming to Melbourne Recital Centre on Thursday February 20 and Friday February 21. Grab your tix via melbournerecital.com.au.