New Pornographers are as analog-happy as Jack White—the future is dead, the present blind. Yesterday? Wide open. But brain trust Carl Newman’s retrofittted hot spots aren’t London ’63 or Detroit ’69. More like San Francisco World’s Fair 1915. Newman’s utopia begins in the Gilded Age, at the dawn of the Ad Man, when capitalism wasn’t the only game in town, and it had to bust its butt—and yours—to get a piece of the rock. His band’s new record could easily be called Electric Virgin, or Electric Company, or General Electric. That’s how excited Newman is to plug in. Picking up where 2000’s exuberance-from-nowhere indie smash Mass Romantic left off, he’s now head tour guide at a bygone Expo. And while everybody else there is, like, celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal, he’s spinning us through gizmo heaven in a whir, swooning in awe at the popped lock-fulls of sounds “streaming out of the magnets.”
The organic machinery of his Vancouver indie supergroup is ripe for patent as well. Their tight-wound springs release like endorphin bursts; keyboards course with aortic purpose, gorged guitars pump insistence, and ragged harmonies caress. There’s still a big Elephant 6 in the middle of the room—one with more control than tremor, one that can pirouette on the head of a two-inch reel-to-reel. On Mass Romantic, when both were moonlighting from their “real” bands, gnashing Dan Bejar (of the Bowie-tinged Destroyer) was more of an equal partner to Zampano’s Newman, but didn’t tour with the Pornos. Here Bejar’s credited as the “secret member,” and lends the nimble swerve and aphoristic brimstone of his craftily enjambed folk-pop melodicism to only three tunes. This time Newman fuels the engines. Well, him, and of course, strategic first-trumpet Neko Case, proving once again that alt-country squanders her wildest gift—the ability to blare like the angels’ car alarm.
For Newman, no friend of narrative, the story’s definitely not in soil. It’s in the exhilarating and terrifying surge of progress, in the relationship of technology to populist pleasure, and in the tension over who’s gonna run Potterville. The first shout-along lyric in “Mass Romantic” rode the buzz of his techno-lust, “Everyone wants to say ‘I love you’/To someone on the rayyyy-dio rayyyy-dio.” And its urgent coda laid out his project—to describe the industrial frisson of “this boy’s life/among the electric lights.” Not surprisingly, Electric Version‘s title track kickoff finds him immediately grinding in the gears, “The sound of God is the screech of tires/ Lights and magnets bolts and wires.” Then, in “From Blown Speakers,” he blisses out on the sad beauty of inevitable mechanical breakdown, the perfection of Kinksy woof-tweet—echoing the joy of pushing through, the “contact high” of “every mood I’ve ever declined to fight.”
Moving blithely from the components of sound to the mechanisms of society, “The Laws Have Changed” and “The End of Medicine” consider the largesse of empire, political and corporate. “Laws” draws a “line to the throne” connecting Tut to Shrub, embodying the urgency of Risk-board domination, mercantile plunder, frontier mania. Of course, even though “the hero for hire’s forever the same one,” power in the age of mechanical reproduction is amplified—and in the age of public relations, Disneyfied. Case’s coronet heralds, “Introducing for the first time, Pharaoh on the microphone!” And biotech gets its due in “Medicine,” which conflates Merck and McDonald’s, alluding rather topically to hypochondriac creation of resistant disease. While the tremolo chorus eddies around the meditative mantra, “Are we, are we, are we, are we facing/The end of all the medicines we’re taking?” the verse’s kid’s-party march hints at an indignant entrepreneurial tantrum.
Compared to Newman’s excellent-adventuring, Bejar’s tone is more pointed; his cascades and koans betray their construction. And so, songs like “Chump Change,” with its tough-love “wipe that look from your face/The world is that which is the case,” are the ones that call us all back from semiotic hyperspace. After the histrionics of Bejar’s “Ballad of a Comeback Kid,” Newman’s ELO-vating “July Jones” is a fresh gale of sweet desperation. When, over its separated throbs, Newman muses, “behind the daylight, oooh what it could be like,” his falsetto has the tug of an impulsive, pointless hand-in-hand scamper uphill. Bejar’s bells might ring “no no no,” but Newman’s ring yes a thousand times yes (with a breezy blur on the esses that wins him a place in the lisp-rock hall of fame).
Babe-next-door Case, though, is unfortunately less in evidence. Nonetheless, even if her spotlight tune, the giddily trampolining “All for Swinging You Around,” is ultimately thinner than “Letter From an Occupant,” she’s still The One, and her plangent, head-cutting verve still ensures the Pornos’ burly-brawl transcendence. On “Laws,” she conjures monarchy with sonic will-to-power. And for the album’s final Buggles bounce, “Miss Teen Wordpower,” her voice bounds, one-two, one-two, up the retro-future scale—you can imagine opaque white stairs lighting up in sequential fluorescents, “Billie Jean” style, as she alights: “nobo/dy knows/the wreck/of the soul/the way you do.” Superconducting, blown-speaker clear, it’s the polarizing vibration of modernity that, as Newman hoped, comes out magical.