Carl Newman, the New Pornographers frontman who also records apart from the group under the moniker A.C. Newman, just released his third solo offering, Shut Down the Streets, a couple of weeks ago. The album’s equally inspired by two recent events — the death of Newman’s mother and the birth of his son — and its 10 tracks, intended as a sort of throwback to lush, early ’70s folk-pop, prominently feature backing vocals by his pal and New Pornos compadre Neko Case. We rang up the affable Newman at his Woodstock, NY home — where he was doing some last-minute packing for his current U.S. tour — for a round of “Reviewing the Reviews,” wherein we read him excerpts from a handful of Shut Down the Streets reviews and got his reactions. “To a certain degree, sure,” Newman replied when we asked him if he’s generally been in the habit of reading reviews of his work. “For example, it’s hard to avoid what Pitchfork says about your record. Even though I try not to pay too much attention to them, if you get a really great review from Pitchfork then somebody tells you. And if you don’t, it’s like, ‘Hmmm … why are people so silent about Pitchfork?'”
– The New Pornographers’ A.C. Newman on Leaving Brooklyn for Woodstock and the Dirty Projectors’ “Next Level Shit”
– On The New Pornographers’ “Your Hands Together,” Which You Can Listen To, Right Now
Newman plays Maxwell’s in Hoboken, NJ, tonight at 9 p.m. Tickets are $17.
On with the reviews…
Shut Down the Streets is not a record for the young — it is wisdom wrapped around the indelible songwriting skills of one of Canada’s most distinctive musicians. In any event, one thing is for sure. When I was in the dentist’s chair a few months ago getting a root canal, Shut Down the Streets is the sort of album I would have wanted played in the background as a kind of anesthetic, a balm for the pain I had to endure. Of not only a bad tooth. Of inevitably growing old. (PopMatters)
Hey, you know, I think I agree with that because obviously there’s a lot of themes on the record, but I remember making it thinking, ‘Why would a 20-year-old like this record?’ I just felt like I wasn’t … it wasnt like I was really trying to be universal, but I feel like everybody has to go through the death of their mother, unless they die first. A lot of people go through the birth of a child. The death of your mother and the birth of your son within a couple years of each other is not necessarily unique and I thought, ‘This is something that would probably happen to someone my age .’ Hopefully other people will like it, but it wasn’t like I was trying to keep up with the times. I wasn’t trying to make an EDM record. Which actually reminds me, last year I was in L.A. and I was having dinner with Aimee Mann and Michael Penn and I was talking with Aimee, like, there’s gotta be a way to make records and embrace the fact that you’re not young anymore. So many bands are just clinging…like Green Day is still spiking their hair and with all the eyeliner, and I thought, would it be so terrible to be like, ‘Hey I’m 50 and I’m making music’? I think my version of surrendering to getting older is gonna be starting a jam band. Watch for it.
It’s often hard to reconcile mature albums like Shut Down The Streets with an artist’s earlier work. For Newman, that’s especially true: The New Pornographers’ first three albums are beloved indie-pop touchstones, and some fans aren’t necessarily interested in hearing him turn introspective. Shut Down The Streets is worth getting over any bias, though: It’s the rare adult album that isn’t a self-indulgent bore. (A.V. Club)
Well that’s very nice of them. I have to say I’m guilty of being a very fairweather fan. There have been bands where I’ve loved them and they’ve changed and I’ve said, ‘I don’t like you anymore.’ Or sometimes I say, ‘This album isn’t as good as the last one, I’m sick of you, I’m moving on to another band.’ And I understand, say, if Grizzly Bear suddenly made a really upbeat record, no matter how brilliant it was, I think people would be annoyed. They would go, ‘Why did you do this? We come to you for a specific thing and you’ve given us something else.’ And I think, yeah, the first three Pornographers records were so well-reviewed and so well-thought-of, and were on this ascent, and then on [2007’s] Challengers I very obviously said ‘No, I wanna take a left turn.’ I thought, ‘That’s great that I did those records but I did three albums like that, am I supposed to keep doing that?’ Maybe the most brilliant career move I could have done would be to keep making slight variations of Mass Romantic and Twin Cinema, but I couldn’t. So, you know, I like to think everything I do has been pretty honest. The reason some of my music has become more mellow and introspective has been a direct reaction to things that are in my life. When I have a tragedy in my life I’m not gonna write about it in the form of [Twin Cinema‘s] ‘Sing Me Spanish Techno’ — that’s just stupid and disrespectful of the things you’re going through. I think my music has followed where life has gone. This is the first Newman project that doesn’t come front-loaded with its best and most eager-to-please material — “Shut Down the Streets” simmers for most of its first half. But those who stick with it will be rewarded with some of the warmest and most personal songs of Newman’s career. (NJ.com)
Okay. I guess. I’m not sure what the songs are that jump out in the second half as opposed to the first half. I’ve noticed this a lot, I don’t know how I feel about it, but a lot of people are going, ‘I love [opening track] “I’m Not Talking”.’ Like, just picking it out and going, ‘That’s one of my favorite songs,’ and not saying much about the rest. I read one review where that was the thrust of it: ‘He came out of the gate with this one great song and the rest of the album doesn’t keep up with it.’ Sometimes you can be insulted by that, but I also think that I have been that music listener. Remember that song ‘Tenderness’ by General Public? When that came out I thought, ‘This is the greatest song I’ve ever heard!’ And I just wanted to listen to it 10 times in a row. And I bought the record and I don’t remember much about the record but it didn’t matter. I didn’t care because it had one song on it that was so great, and that song was so great that if you asked me if I liked General Public I’d go, ‘Yeah, I really like General Public.’ So if somebody just loves a couple songs by me, I shouldn’t cry myself to sleep over that. I will say that it always feels very vulnerable when you make a record. I don’t know whether I should feel proud of all of it or embarrassed by all of it. I go back and forth constantly.
He is the straitlaced pop scholar to Dan Bejar’s schizophrenic genre outlaw, the driving engine behind the success of one of indie’s biggest millennial bands but never the kind to pull on any heartstrings, to really stand up and beg to be noticed. Shut Down the Streets is an album that longs to defeat that perception, to go onward into some brave new territory — hell, Newman seems to already be there on the album cover — but it can’t help but keep one foot in the past. (Sputnik Music)
[Pauses for several seconds] What does that even mean? [laughs] I dunno about that one. I will say this: Lyrically it can be a little annoying to constantly be in the shadow of [New Pornographers’] Dan [Bejar] because Dan is such a great lyricist. But I know my lyrics often make more sense than Dan’s. Not to say they’re better in any way, I think he’s a much better lyricist, but it’s annoying when Dan will write something that’s really cool but there’s no way anybody could follow the narrative, and then I’ll write something that has a very clear narrative, like, ‘How can you not tell what I’m talking about?’ and people say, ‘Oh, Newman’s hiding behind oblique lyrics.’ I’m not sure if this person is saying that, maybe they’re not, but I have gotten that in other reviews, like Pitchfork. I think it annoys me on this record because more than ever I was writing about real, obvious things and just because someone can’t follow them because they don’t have good reading comprehension or they don’t care enough or whatever … I dunno. It’s also maddening when there’s a song that’s very personal and somebody dismisses it. I think most people, even people who write middling reviews for this record, they treat the song ‘Shut Down the Streets’ with a certain amount of respect because they’re like, ‘He wrote this for his mother so I’m not gonna be a total dick. I’ll be a dick about other things on the record.’
I’m sure someone will be a dick about that song eventually, and when I see that review I’ll wanna kill that person with a baseball bat. But I won’t. I think overall a lot of the songs have connected with people, and that means the most to me. It’s what I’ve always tried to do. From the beginning of the Pornographers I’ve always been trying to keep up with Neko [Case] and Dan — not trying to pass them but just trying to be in the same league. When we were making Mass Romantic Dan had just made City of Daughters and Neko had just made Furnace Room Lullaby and I thought, ‘Wow, my two friends just made the best albums of their careers.’ Then flash forward a decade and Dan made Kaputt and Neko made Middle Cyclone and they’ve made the best albums of their careers, so I didn’t even try [laughs]. I just gave up. I went, ‘Okay, I’m not gonna make anything like that,’ so I thought I’d make my little personal record. Songs like “Do Your Own Time” and “Hostages” make demands and present confrontations, but behind them is a clear idea sometimes it isn’t about interconnection. In a world where we constantly pretend to connect with each other — through comment threads and status updates, through Instagram and tweets — Newman makes a beautiful case for retreat. (Prefix)
Yeah, I hope so. I think that is a big theme on the record. There was a long period where to feel better about life I needed to come out here where there was nothing and it was very serene. ‘You Could Get Lost Out Here’ and ‘I’m Not Talking,’ that’s pretty much the theme of them. Sometimes I felt like I was on the verge of being a grumpy old hermit. I remember when I moved out to Woodstock and I’d go on tour with the Pornographers and I just felt like, ‘Everybody’s gotta get out of my face!’ Because I was so used to being in a quiet, mellow environment, the hustle and bustle of city life just pissed me off. Going to New York and not being able to get a taxi, like, ‘Who the hell would ever wanna live here? You can’t even fucking get home!’ I’ve gotten over that now. Now we’re finally at a point where we wanna spend more time in the city, maybe because our son is 8 months old and I want him to experience more of the world.
Like Paul McCartney after his Beatles and “Band on the Run” salad days, Newman is settling into a phase in his career as a solo artist in which he can still be inspired without being particularly surprising. (The Current)
Hmmm. Sometimes I have gotten that vibe over the last few years. Some people’s reaction is, ‘Yeah he made another good record. SO?’ You know? It’s like, ‘Yeah, he’s been doing that for years so I’m supposed to write about it because he made another good record?’ I think there’s an element of novelty that’s kinda necessary in this day and age. I think once your band hits the public eye I figure you’re allowed to make three albums that sound the same. And then after that you have to move on. There are a couple bands who buck that trend. To name one of my favorite bands: Spoon. They’ve sounded the same for a decade, but are still amazing. They don’t think I’m surprising, huh? I dunno. Interestingly enough, when I’m talking with my band I think there’s something about my songs where you don’t really understand how complicated they are until you have to sit down and play them. They tell me stuff like, ‘This is like triplets with a dotted sixteenth!’ and I’ll say, ‘Well, I don’t know what the hell that is but I’m very proud I wrote that!’ I think I’m kinda screwed in that way, that I don’t even get the credit for being musically complex because my songs sound simple. So I don’t even get the prog fans. Maybe someday.