I’m a power pop guy at heart. Big hooks over manic drums and surprise minor chords? Can’t beat it.
That’s my disclaimer before I call The New Pornographers the best band of the last 20 years. It’s not a popular choice, generally well-liked though they are. But to my ears, no one can match the consistently stellar songwriting they’ve delivered since their 2000 debut Mass Romantic and through this year’s already-criminally-underappreciated In the Morse Code of Brake Lights.
I sort of get the disconnect. Power pop is all about maximizing ecstasy while working within tight parameters, for a listener who’s already likely heard every conceivable variant of the genre a million times (The Beatles mined everything there was to mine over an eight-year span half a century ago). But that’s the game.
And in the hands of anything less than a genius, it can be a pretty boring game. Fortunately, the NPs have a genius in lead singer/songwriter Carl Newman, who possesses an understanding of this particular art that’s way more advanced than most.
Newman approaches pop songwriting like a formal experiment. To some, his clinical focus on form over the romantic ideal of divine rock inspiration creates distance between the music and the listener. But if you’re wired for and fully immersed in this stuff, it’s a unique joy to listen to a master consciously playing with the ingredients and boundaries of his medium.
I don’t know if “Brill Bruisers” is the best New Pornographers song of the decade. But I’m pretty sure – with its double-speed adaptation of the opening chord progression from Squeeze’s “Tempted,” and the titular allusion to the home of America’s past music legends, and the full-band “BO BA BOs,” and this Letterman performance featuring Neko Case in pharaoh tights blowing the roof off the Ed Sullivan Theater in well under three minutes – that this track is Newman’s biggest flex.