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There’s already the notion floating around that Challengers is head Pornographer Carl Newman’s Brian Wilson moment. Those thrift-store “Letter to an Occupant” synths of yore? No more! Say hello to strings, harmonica, stately piano, and some mid-tempo action. But, c’mon, this isn’t Smile. Besides, the Canadian collective’s ticky-tacky new-wave sheen of old shows up on “All Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth,” which happens to be the album’s low point. If Challengers is anything, it’s an attempt to push— gently push—the NP’s beloved power-pop envelope, showcasing a band that can overcome its lack of a strong, singular voice with a lot of musical weapons and a melodic sense that’s only rivaled in North America by the Shins. The title track, sung by Newman and Neko Case, is achingly beautiful, a latticework of harmonies in the service of an off-kilter lullaby about an affair. Meanwhile, Dan “Destroyer” Bejar’s “Myriad Harbor” is a semi-glam Pixies rip—like “Use It,” from the NP’s 2005 effort Twin Cinema—only not as fast and funny.
Newman, on the other hand, takes a stab at the serious here. “My Rights Versus Yours” is as catchy as anything in his catalog, and its reference to a “new empire in rags” is as bald a statement as he’s ever made. “Unguided,” which is six minutes long(!), wants to be as important and emotionally urgent, but comes off as portentous instead—the Pornographers work better when they move quicker and don’t overthink.