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A.C. Newman - Get Guilty

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Artist: A.C. Newman

Album: Get Guilty

Label: Matador

Review date: Jan. 19, 2009

A.C. Newman is adroit with words, but he doesn’t really trust them. Consider, for instance, that the central, triumphant lyric of opener “There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve” is fundamentally ambiguous: “Make of that what you will.” Or that in the huge, Beatles-esque fantasy, “Submarines of Stockholm,” he talks directly to the camera about songwriting, observing, “You start putting your words into shapes / Shapes you can only make out when you squint.” Or that in the single “The Palace at 4 a.m.” he makes the pledge, “No more pushing words around.” An immensely clever, allusive wordsmith, Newman seems to see the limits of pure cerebral narrative. Even when surrounded by intricate, puzzle palaces of verbiage, he understands that the pure kick of drums, the preliterate flourish of “ba-da-das” can have a value that is not denominated in words. Moreover, he grasps that words, for all their nominal exactness, can turn slippery and mercurial in the context of a song. There are a lot of numbers in the lyrics to Get Guilty, and you sense that Newman is searching for a sort of precision, a mathematically elegant structure, in his buoyant pop structures.

Get Guilty is Newman’s second solo album, following 2004’s The Slow Wonder (and a year after the New Pornographer’s Challengers). As in The Slow Wonder, Newman practices a spinning plate sort of complexity, juggling big rock sounds on fragile sticks of melody, heaping difficulty upon difficulty, without a single crash (or even a grimace). It looks easy. It sounds easy. It is not.

Let’s go back to those lyrics, for instance. They are embedded with internal rhymes, possessed, even before the drums, with an instinctual rhythm. The lines are broken irregularly, in the middle of phrases, so that the lyrics seem to rhyme without really intending to, casually and precisely at the same time.

Or consider the way that Newman jettisons these lyrics, just when they are getting most interesting, and relies on the pure emotional resonance of sound. Here’s a writer who (in “Heartbreak Rides”) can observe that “California had some casual bedlam / something in the basic swing of things led them to victimless crimes” with knotty specificity, then in the same breath, can make a non-verbal chorus of “Yell-o,” the emotional center of the song.

Musically the songs are alternately sparse and dense, but never overbearingly lavish. “Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer” is, perhaps, the most stripped-down, jagged song, with its slash-and-return dialogue between guitar and rim shots. Elegant, pared down, allusive, it nevertheless has its sweeteners, a billow of harmonies, a winding guitar solo. At the other end, closer “All of My Days and All of My Days Off” has the caffeinated effusiveness of New Pornographers’ “Mass Romantic.” Its chorus will be the first bit of this record that you’ll remember, the first one you’ll catch yourself singing, and the last thing you’ll forget, after all that verbal complexity slips from mind.

Newman also benefits from some very strong supporting players. Jon Wurster (ex of Superchunk, the Robert Pollard band and Mountain Goats) is on drums, Charles Burst arranges orchestral instruments, and Mates of State and Nicole Atkins sing a bit. Each of these players has their moments, but let’s focus on two. In “Changeling (Get Guilty),” Wurster does what the drummer from Oasis did in “Wonderwall.” That is, a perfectly-shaped kick to the rear that lifts the song from reticent musing to swaggering power ballad. The drumfill that bridges the shift from verse to ecstatic, harmonized “Change your mind” chorus is not big or show-offy, but it’s exactly right. Burst gets his spotlight in “Young Atlantis,” with a long, melancholy string introduction and quiet tones of brass. It’s not a huge element of the song, but it transforms its verses from pure guitar pop to something more.

Unpacking all the things that go into Newman’s songs would take too long. (It’s already taken too long, and we haven’t gotten to half of them.) The main thing to remember is, there’s always more than meets the ear, perhaps even more than necessary. Get Guilty isn’t an easy album at all. It just sounds like one.

By Jennifer Kelly

Other Reviews of A.C. Newman

The Slow Wonder

Shut Down the Streets

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