Have you ever been airborne in a car? I have. It is an awful feeling. Time slows down in your head and you take it all in…and one thought kicks around in an isolated chunk of forever: this is going to hurt.
It is that loss of autonomy, of control, that is the most painful part. No matter how hard you try or how fervently you pray, you can’t will the car back onto the road. You’re in the air and whatever is going to happen is going to happen. However hard you smack ground, so shall it be. Hitting the brakes or twisting the steering wheel won’t help you now.
On their latest album, In The Morse Code of Brake Lights, the band The New Pornographers suffuse their brand of power pop with this dread. Co-lead vocalist and primary songwriter A.C. Newman is cautious not to stack the deck with ballads or dirges, lest he get slammed the way the band did when they transitioned from the upbeat, nervy Twin Cinema (2005) to the more thoughtful Challengers (2007). Those criticisms were, by the way, baseless in retrospect. Both Challengers and Together (2010) hold up remarkably well. The band just wasn’t in the mind to replicate “Use It” again.
I’m not sure how well …Brake Lights will age, however. Not for lack of quality, mind you. This is an exceptional collection of songs that finds Newman and co-lead singer Neko Case seemingly working closer together than I’ve recalled on previous records. It could be selective memory, but the two singers have had a very long working relationship, and with the specifics of the majority of these songs, they have found within each other a common cause.
The lovely “Colossus of Rhodes,” the driving “The Surprise Knock,” the opening anxiety attack of “You’ll Need A New Backseat Driver,” all hint – large and small – at having passed the tipping point, and now all we have is the air and the eventual impact. Even the perkiest sounding of these songs are tinged with this nod: I’ll see you on the way down.
In The Morse Code of Brake Lights follows 2017’s Whiteout Conditions, a record that, for a New Pornos fan like me was a bit of a disappointment. The songs were, I’m sure, in there but there was so much sheen and gloss on them that it was hard to just take the record in. To me, it sounded like just about every other pop record that was out there, which I suppose was not a quality I was looking for from Newman and Co.
…Brake Lights sounds rougher, denser. It fits the subject matter perfectly. At its most buoyant, the record never glistens while the threads within the tunes bristle. The soundscapes are purpose-built to convey that feeling I mentioned, even when the beat meekly invites you to dance.
This is music for this moment, and that’s why I speculate about how the record will stand over time. If we are lucky, we’ll listen back in ten or twenty years and smirk about its undercurrent of disappointment, much as we do now over how Y2K did not destroy civilization. If we indeed reach that point, I’ll happily accept the degradation this record will undergo. If this car does not land safely, and our worst imaginings come true, then The New Pornographers’ In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights will certainly be recalled for its artful presence of mind. It’ll be a real mess out there, but we cannot claim we weren’t warned.