For as consistently great as A.C. Newman is, both solo and with the New Pornographers, he has always been slowly but steadily stretching his palate. The quick, slightly off-kilter tempos of Get Guilty reimagined the New Pornographers’ power-pop sound, while the last New Porno’s record, Together, supplanted the crunch of guitars for the low rumble of cellos, twisting their rock tendencies into something closer (but no less vital) to chamber pop.
So the news that Shut Down the Streets sounds both like a basic musical tradition (the personal singer-songwriter record) and borrowed from a specific time and aesthetic (psychedelic ’70s singer-songwriter) seems, on paper, like a surprising step back to safer territory for Newman. In the hands of a lesser songwriter it might be. But what’s most remarkable about Shut Down the Streets — aside from its uniform, bittersweet beauty as a pop record — is that it borrows and builds on these traditions. This isn’t looking to revive Gallagher & Lyle or Gordon Lightfoot but instead you can hear Newman weaving influence into his own aesthetic. There’s something of Van Morrison in the horns on opener “I’m Not Talking,” or the pastoral folk-pop of Gene Clark in the light thump of “You Could Get Lost” or the warm haze of countless records from the early-’70s in the warm organs on “Do Your Own Time.”
These, though, are merely footnotes in the music. The sounds themselves are firmly rooted in Newman’s knack for swirling yet sturdy melodies, and many songs here are girded with his sense of lean power-pop muscle. “Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns” with its bouncing beat and irreverent lyrics, is classic Newman in that its both an example of his craft and one of the best songs of his career. “Money In New Wave” meshes those expected moves with the warmer fragility of Shut Down the Streets‘ other songs, as is the almost title track “They Should Have Shut Down the Streets,” which puts the focus on vocal harmonies and wind instruments but, under the gauze, is a rumbling pulse.
So musically, it’s a brilliant new step for Newman. It may make for a moment or two that feel incongruous — the wind instrument at the outset of “Hostages” feels out of place and tacked on, for example — but mostly this is a confident new direction. It’s confidence is a quiet one, and a fitting one for a record that seems to be a call for the joys of a private, even quiet life. “I like the way things are,” he claims on “I’m Not Talking.” He’s certain he can “call off the search” for something new. There’s a hard-earned contentment in moments like this on the record. Songs like “Do Your Own Time” and “Hostages” make demands and present confrontations, but behind them is a clear idea sometimes it isn’t about interconnection. In a world where we constantly pretend to connect with each other — through comment threads and status updates, through Instagram and tweets — Newman makes a beautiful case for retreat.
It’s may not be a surprising argument from a guy who moved up to Woodstock, New York, but it’s amazing how this doesn’t sound contrarian or isolated at all. There’s a generosity of spirit to Shut Down the Streets, when it embraces both these joys (springing, at least partially, from Newman becoming a new father, no doubt). But it also extends to grief. The final track addresses Newman losing his mother in 2010 and also investigates the public ways in which we express and deal with grief. “They should have shut down the streets,” he claims of the day of the funeral, even as he imagines people standing hat in hand on the sides of the road, or an elementary-school class drawing condolence cards. It seems at first like a cry for spectacle, for stopping everything to travel this tough path, until you realize Newman means all the roads, even the ones they’d process down. That grief, no matter how we commumal we make it, no matter how out in the open we can express it, it’s still internal, deeply personal. When the funeral ends and everyone else goes home, we’re still left with the lingering loss, for better and worse.
Shut Down the Streets makes space to deal with these ups and downs in life. It manages to convey aloneness without loneliness, the bittersweet without the overly melancholy. If Newman is more personal here, he doesn’t rely on the shock of personal detail. His songwriting still deals in impressions of reality, they just get at emotions closer to the songwriter than much of his work with the New Pornographers. Lucky for us, though, there’s a lot of space in all this solitude and quiet for us, the listeners, to find our own space in these songs. They have that kind of hypnotic quality, a combination of strength and texture that sounds calm at every turn, which is what makes it so surprisingly volatile in its effect.