The New Pornographers have always seemed to be Canada’s answer to Belle & Sebastian in the same way that Captain Marvel was Marvel Comics’ answer to Superman. A. C. Newman and company have always been able to write catchy pop songs: The opening half of 2000’s Mass Romantic is undeniable get-up-and-move music, as are the beginning salvos from Electric Version (2003) and Twin Cinema (2005). On Challengers, the New Pornographers daringly opt out of relying on their strengths — namely, Newman’s ear-catching knack for a good hook — and instead choose the album’s least engaging songs to open the album.
The first track, “My Rights Versus Yours,” probably won’t pull you in, and then “All the Old Showstoppers” doesn’t hit its stride until halfway through. In fact, Challengers feels like a B-sides EP tacked onto a much better album that doesn’t start until the fifth track, “All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth.” An obvious choice for a single, this buried gem has the kind of steady, droning push that Newman excels at crafting, complete with Dr. Dre-ready strings egging on the band’s drive to the song’s final chord. After borrowing Billie Joe’s vibrato pedal from “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” the album moves onto “Failsafe,” which along with “Go Places” marks the best efforts Neko Case has put into the New Pornographers since the band’s inception.
Truthfully, after the first four songs, there’s nothing about Challengers that isn’t an evolutionary step forward for the band, making the sequencing even more nonsensical. The New Pornographers will likely never change the way things are done in rock ‘n’ roll, but as long as they keep changing the way they do things for the better, as they have on Challengers, they will never want for critical acclaim or a devoted fan base.