Well, I never thought I’d be calling a Carl Newman-helmed album “a grower.” But here we are: It’s 2009, and I’m stamping that overused critical term on his latest solo effort, Get Guilty. What a strange era we live in.
Flash back to the first half of this decade, when Newman was crafting a ridiculous trilogy of pop albums with the New Pornographers: Mass Romantic in 2000, The Electric Version in ’03 and Twin Cinema in ‘05. Those songs were spring-loaded to burst from the speakers and smack people in the face on the first listen. It was all damn exhilarating, but also kind of uptight in its own way. For all their apparent spontaneity, these tunes were still a perfectionist’s clockwork masterpieces.
Challengers signaled a shift in 2007, and Get Guilty pretty much cements it: Newman doesn’t need to impress anyone anymore. So the new record begins with the shambling, rambling “There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve,” which honestly bewildered me a bit on first listen. Sure, the verse lyrics are head-scratchingly oblique -- that’s nothing new for Newman.
But then comes the refrain: “Make of that what you will,” delivered in a dismissive deadpan over cymbal crashes and tweeting recorders. It’s always a dicey proposition to speculate on an artist’s intentions, but Newman’s practically daring me here. It feels like a gauntlet-throwing moment: The singer is doing damn well as he pleases on this record.
After that jarring opening, things slip back to Newman’s bread-and-butter pop. Almost. Whereas past albums -- especially solo debut The Slow Wonder -- felt factory-sealed and immaculately preserved in the studio, Get Guilty comes across a bit scruffier around the edges at times.
“Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer” sidewinds through jagged flamenco-guitar breaks, before hitting one of those trademark sunburst Newman choruses, complete with a melodica flourish. Then there’s “The Palace at 4 A.M.” whose big-room reverb gives it the feel of a live recording.
Elsewhere, Newman continues to pack enough ideas into three-minute bursts to give each track its own personality. Delicately crafted suites like “Thunderbolts” and “Young Atlantis” showcase his lighter touch, while “Submarines of Stockholm” flashes a bit of aggression between droning sonar pings. And of course, it wouldn’t be a complete effort without that one big adrenaline-rush moment: the “change your mind” chorus on the title track.
Everything’s a little less condensed here than previous entries into the Newman catalogue, and the compositions even get to hang loose at times. That does lead to some delayed gratification, but it’s still exciting to see Newman let his hair down a bit -- in an understated manner, of course.
Get Guilty is the second solo effort from Carl Newman, and counting his work with his main project the New Pornographers, the fifth record in six years that he has written. It features the trademark hooks and whip-smart lyrics that fans of 2004's The Slow Wonder are well acquainted with. The title of the album is a nod to postmodernist author Donald Barthelme, as is the track "The Palace at 4 A.M.," which was inspired by one of his short stories. Newman also knows how to make musical allusions--the album features guest spots by Mates of State and Jon Wurster of Superchunk, and was recorded in the same space that the Pixies laid down Doolittle.