Alt-orchestral power pop
Carl Newman leads the charge on The New Pornographers’s eighth release, In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights. With Dan Bejar remaining on the sidelines for the second LP in a row, the resulting octet notches another compelling claim as one of the best, if not most-consistent, contemporary acts. Immediately recognizable, due in large part to the distinct voices of Newman and Neko Case, the songs within revisit familiar shapes and lyrical cadences while also slightly shifting the balance of instruments and vocal duties. Lush harmonies, precise arrangements and powerful verse/chorus dynamics still abound. However, strings replace some of the previous albums’ synthesized soundbed and lyrics appear more thematically directed than chosen solely for auditory purposes.
Jangly tack piano and heavily reverberated guitar conjure up an image of the open road—fitting for the subject matter of the opening track, “You’ll Need A New Backseat Driver.” A melodic verse over click-clack percussion changes into a brief chorus with the addition of male harmonies and an ever-increasing number of sounds. Whether it’s an infectious bass groove or curt, modulated guitar fills and solos, the band adds and subtracts components with ease.
“The Surprise Knock” builds its main theme around warbling synths and a vocal riff of “ba-ba’s” and “ah-ah’s” that serve as their own instruments. Like its predecessor, the tune combines a staggering array of passages filled with diverse sounds and incredible precision, while still sounding organic—not sterile or forced. ’80s-infused “Falling Down The Stairs Of Your Smile” skips along with electric piano and a danceable bassline that carries the track without being overbearing.
“Colossus Of Rhodes” signals some modest, but important changes on the set’s composition and message. The forward-driving drumming, synthesized progression and string bursts command most of the attention, but barely hidden is the shift in wordplay from convenient to directed. A seemingly odd choice of title becomes clearer when sung alongside lines such as, “There is no point in trying to run/ the calls are coming from the house.” The hints of social commentary embellished by metaphors of traveling, movement and the past continue into “Higher Beams” and “Dreamlike And On The Rush,” as does the increasing presence of string flourishes. “One Kind Of Solomon,” follows in this vein with an ancient tale abutting modern references to “gig economy,” “happy landing” and “screen time.”
None of these changes detract from the musical contributions of the band members. Guitars are warm and succinct, the rhythm section is tight and the harmonizing excellent as always. Neither do Newman and company neglect their songwriting duties as witnessed on “You Won’t Need Those Where You’re Going.” Combining the best melody on the album with gentle vocals and minimal piano, the result is a great change of pace and the most unique song of the collection.
For some, In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights might not rise to the esteem of its two predecessors, Brill Bruisers and Whiteout Conditions. A couple of key differences in personnel and album flow push the group into a fresh territory that may feel like a contender for their best attempt yet, or an uneven effort, depending on the tastes and ears of the listener. Under the name of another band, the album probably avoids this meticulous scrutiny, but so much has become expected of The New Pornographers.