New Pornographers Are Very Online and Not Super Happy About It on ‘Continue as a Guest’
Over the course of their 20-plus-year career, the New Pornographers have often specialized in catchy ambiguity. If leader Carl Newman was just a machine cranking out power-pop tunes, it would get boring. But there’s also a lot of mixed emotions going on under the surface of their studiously nuanced pop-rock formalism — like if Cheap Trick was as quick-witted as Steely Dan, or the Romantics were as throughtful as REM. The Canadian band’s iconic 2000 debut, Mass Romantic, was a masterclass in hook-mad fun highlighted by songs with resolutely unfun titles like “My Slow Descent Into Alcoholism” and “The Body Says No.” 2003’s Electric Version peaked with “The Laws Have Changed,” a smile-y rocker about the Pharaoh vibes of the George W. Bush administration. More recently, the title track from their 2017 album Whiteout Conditions set lyrics about debilitating depression to music as sleek as an ELO radio mainstay.
But on their ninth album, the sense of crisis in Newman’s songwriting is reflected in a more subdued musical tone as well, making for an LP that delivers its vivid emotional payoff in subtle gestures. That doesn’t mean there aren’t big, splashy songs here. Continue as a Guest opens with the dreamy banger “Really Really Light,” and “Angelcover” bursts forth with a frilly flute and echo-laden tom-tom rumble like a recovered memory of Men At Work. Mostly, though, the mood has changed. Hot guitar charge takes a backseat to studio pastiche, a wistful saxophone shows up prominently, and the tempos tend toward the reflectively drifty. The results can be magisterial: “Last and Beautiful” has a lush, slo-mo grandeur, and on the lavishly pretty “Cat and Mouse With the Light,” dappled electronics combine with a graceful jazz-folk melody to suggest 1960s Van Morrison playing a 1990s chillout room, as co-singer Neko Case turns the awkward chorus “It’s like I can’t stand that you love me” into sweet, surreptitious poetry.
As the band’s first album in four years, Continue as a Guest has a distinct Covid-steeped feel of frustrated introspection, right down to its “stuck at home, buying stuff online” title. “Battle Episodes” and “Pontius Pilate’s Home Movies” are the kind of acerbic, impressionistic riffs on media overload and enforced alienation that might come to you after too much time inside with your phone and TV as company. “Most of us don’t have the luxury of giving in,” Newman sings on the brooding title track, before adding darkly, “If you’re talking giving up, well that’s another thing.”
In the press notes that come with the album, he says that song is about the struggles of being in a longstanding band. But there are affirming moments here too, like “Firework In the Falling Snow,” which builds on music that feels beautifully unsure of itself as Newman sings about a relationship that was born to burn out. “Wanted to be bright, bright and loud/Be the kind of thing that dies out,” he offers, finding empathy in what feels like a moment of impending collapse.
The album ends with “Wish Automatic Suite,” which starts in an ambient cloud, then suddenly kicks into the kind of brawny, full-band chug that’s always been a New Pornos rock & roll safety zone, before ascending even more gorgeously as their voices join together to implore with faint optimism, “Meet in the mirror maze, tell me when you find the floor/Tell me when you find the way out.” Finding your way out of life’s mirror maze is never easy. But if these people do it, they’ll do it together. The New Pornographers sound like a band that’s in it for the long haul.