How many fantasy authors must have individual novels that spin off characters from their more famous parent property? I can only imagine (I mean, I’m not going to go about reading that) that it’s a common enough practice. One epic property and a dozen smaller pieces of canon to build it all up. In some ways, this is how A.C. Newman, the white knight of a leading man, relates to The New Pornographers, the larger gang who take off on serialized epic journeys. It’s continually less clear whether The New Pornographers started as a supergroup (at least, of Indie Rock proportions) or became one. Newman already has two solo LPs to his own canon. While we always want to see the gang together, this is a group of strong personalities, and Newman, predictably, can more than support his own outing.
Newman has always been The New Pornographers’ primary writer, with Dan Bejar filling in for a few tracks each LP. Bejar’s pieces are interspersed there, and for their differences, they fit in remarkably well. Both artists know how to write tracks of a massive pop-rock scale. To beat this metaphor further, though Bejar may be the Han Solo to Newman’s Skywalker, we can’t deny that Bejar has more flavor. His project Destroyer is approaching a dozen albums, and among them are pieces that can stand apart: smart, strong releases. Both artists work in a singer and guitar focused world with clever flourishes and seriously chugging backing bands. Where Bejar succeeds off of handsome style and charisma, Newman plays more of the nice guy. He’s polite and charming, and though his quieter pieces may never be as gripping or demanding, his writing isn’t exactly simple. Though The New Pornographers succeed off of the collected talent, they write choruses for verses and even bigger choruses for choruses. They’re each more than talented enough on their own.
Naturally, Newman’s simpler tracks are best served for his solo work. Though they make for a fine way of fleshing out the courses of a New Pornographers’ album, it simply doesn’t allow for the kind of extended dive that Newman ought to be able to take advantage of. Newman’s lyrics have become increasingly abstract inside of his main project, but here we find him once again back to more personal and straightforward subjects. “I like the way things are. I say abandon the search.” Newman isn’t deeply personal, but he comes across as earnest. He’s too much of a nice guy for us not to believe him.
That all said, Newman has brought along perhaps the most distinct sound of The New Pornographers: Neko Case’s sharp, brassy voice. It’s an instrument that Newman knows how to write for perhaps better than Case herself, and though she’s used for sparing flourishes here, when Case gets going on tracks like Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns (a name that even sounds like the type of lighthearted and clever tone that Newman would take to The New Pornographers), it gets to the point where it would be hard to tell what project this is from out of context. Newman even adopts his quicker, more assured tone, the type that can lead an army of musicians into such a lofty chorus.
In the end, this album comes across as Newman trying out new flares, different singing quirks, different catchy tones. Opening track I’m Not Talking starts out with an airy electronic blooping, and though it doesn’t speak to the song’s eventual tonality, it is carried on throughout the piece. The track also finds Newman dragging out his words in a way that almost starts to open him up a bit more. Newman has always sounds prepared on his more personal tracks, but here he might actually start to get caught up in his singing. This isn’t necessarily great, however. As much as a raw and open Newman might make for a great listen, this in between stage simply shorts us the rollicking and charming pieces we’d otherwise get.
It’s hard not to want the massive tracks that make The New Pornographers so great and that Newman is so skilled at writing and singing. He’s always been fine at taking to these more toned down pieces, but unlike Bejar, he isn’t quite able to extrapolate what sets him apart into something more specific and different. What we get is a fine album with some serious hits, but this isn’t going to separately establish Newman in a specific way. It’s nothing to complain about, and Shut Down the Streets is more than a fine visit to a talented artist. There’s cause to listen again, but this type of LP could never get the type of spins that a record from The New Pornographers could. As long as he’s so nearly competing with himself, the comparison will always be there.