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The New Pornographers - Electric Version

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Artist: The New Pornographers

Album: Electric Version

Label: Matador

Review date: Jun. 11, 2003

Meaningless Fun

The meaning is that there is no meaning. Let us clarify: pop music succeeds because of its non-linearity, its connection to unspoken emotions, suppressed ideas, hidden desires. A good way of tapping these buried feelings is by going at them sideways, disguising your intent and subtly avoiding emotional defenses. An example of this is the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie”, long recognized as both a great song and complete gibberish. While not about anything, the song taps into something much deeper and more complex than its simple, pounding drums and ragged guitar would suggest. People don’t necessarily need or want explicit “meaning” or content in their art. They might not even know what they’re looking for, but like armchair art critics, they know it when they hear it.

Such is the case in the music made by the New Pornographers, who fully understand that meaning is beside the point. This isn’t to say that their songs aren’t well-made; quite the opposite. Many of the songs on Electric Version sound genuinely crafted, every handclap and cooing background vocal nestled perfectly in place. Rather, pop itself becomes the subject of the music and the means of its delivery. Lyrics revolve around “blown speakers”, pulsing sound waves, and lovers drifting in a buzz of sound. But these lyrical details feel peripheral, insignificant compared to the lush harmonies and soaring keyboards that wrap themselves around every perfectly-constructed hook.

Initially appearing in the late nineties, the Pornographers were assembled by Vancouver songwriter Carl Newman to flesh out his baroque pop fantasies. Hailed as a Canadian pop supergroup of sorts at the release of 2000’s Mass Romantic, New Pornographers also received contributions from Neko Case and Destroyer’s Dan Bejar. But the New Pornographers are Newman’s show, despite the collective means of production. Despite the number of players, there is clearly a grand design at work, an overall motif of what a pop song should be. However, for an obsessively detailed songwriter, Newman seems rather relaxed about letting others shine, either sharing the mic or entirely ceding it to Case on several songs. Bejar also contributes a couple of songs, whose off-kilter character balances out some of the more straightforward pop material on the record.

During tunes like “The Laws Have Changed”, notions like meaning become, well, meaningless. The song is a furious rush of traded vocals between Newman and Case, shifting tempos and dynamics, hand claps and driving guitars – a perfect pop song. At their best, the New Pornographers effortlessly dress down emotional defenses and bestow, for at least a moment, simple joy. It’s hard to ask for much more.

By Jason Dungan

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