Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers have got a knack for impeccably crafted pop songs. On their fifth studio album, Together, they remain rooted in their usual brand of giddy hooks and quirkily catchy melodies, but they add a few new elements to the mix. As a result, the album is something of a hot mess – all over the place in its scatter-spray musical influence – but its unflinchingly lovely and impulsively listenable.
The principles are all present and accounted for. AC Newman‘s songwriting has never been so wry and concise. Neko Case shines with a swagger she rarely ventured to show on 2009’s Middle Cyclone. Dan Bejar contributes a smattering of pop revelry.
But Together is most notable in its guest musicians. The Dap Kings contribute horns to the majority of the album, infusing it with an almost Chicago-like ’70s AM radio feel. Beirut‘s Zach Condon lends his globetrotting instrumentation from time to time. Also present are Okkervil River‘s Will Scheff and Annie Clark of St Vincent. This could easily have resulted in a too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen effect, but what we’ve got here is a supergroup that sounds more super than ever.
Opener, Moves begins with swirling and furious cello, and explodes into a pocket symphony of horns, strings and piano while the entire cast of characters sings their way through a lilting, skipping overture.
Neko Case takes the lead on The Crash Years, lending her lightly country-fried charm to a tune that wouldn’t feel out of place on a She & Him record (and I mean that nicely), complete with a tramping whistling refrain. She also turns the slowly rollicking ballad My Shepherd into something otherworldly. “If I’m honest, you come to mind. But, baby, I’m not,” she sings, sounding purposefully elusive as ever.
Your Hands (Together) changes things up, sounding like a time-travelling misfit from some phantom classic rock station. Bejar’s excellent Silver Jenny Dollar returns things to Archies pop territory introducing the album’s first really memorable hook. Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk is a clear standout track about a “mistake on the part of nature,” and all sorts of things that are “Byzantine.” Handclaps and oh-oh-ohs abound.
Valkyrie At The Roller Disco features a unique brand of banjo-piano interplay and a swirling mix of voices, creating a swaying and achingly beautiful centerpiece in the midst of all this jangling catchiness. “Valkyrie, don’t go home,” the gang sings, sounding not unlike Fleetwood Mac by the time the song builds to its conclusion.
Closer We End Up Together opens with a question and a challenge: “When are you going to do some damage, little brother? Now that half your life is over, if you’re lucky.” It all builds into the same sort of frantic cello-guitar riff (though not a direct mirror) that opened the album, creating a nice bookend effect and lending the whole a feeling of rare completion.
When you have a track record as consistently fantastic as The New Pornographers, it would be expected that you’d mis-step from time to time. Not this time though; Together is certainly far-reaching in its ambitions, and it often seems close to collapsing under the combined weight of all its collaborators, but it never falters, despite its dangerous dance. The New Pornographers have taken a risk in fussing with their sound, but in large part it’s paid off beautifully.