A.C. Newman: goin' through changes.
After the first couple of New Pornographers records, frontman A.C. Newman probably could have kept on churning out hyper-caffeinated, keyboard-addled power-pop and no one would have called foul. Who cared if songs like "Letter from an Occupant" and "The Laws Have Changed" were lyrically incoherent? Their upbeat energy and harmony-drenched pop melodies were unforgettable, and they helped to usher in the Canadian indie rock boom of the past decade.
Newman, it turned out, had more tricks up his sleeve. Over the course of several albums -- both solo and with the New Pornographers -- he gradually began to introduce more acoustic instruments into the fray, with strings and horns replacing keyboards in songs that frequently ventured into low-key balladry.
Which brings us to Shut Down the Streets. Newman's third solo LP is perhaps the mellowest album he has ever been responsible for. At times, he sounds less like a bandleader and more like an old-fashioned singer-songwriter thanks to the poignant lyrics and liberally applied acoustic guitar. Hell, there's even a track called "The Troubadour."
Not coincidentally, Shut Down the Streets was composed around the same time that Newman's mother passed away and his son was born. Life-changing events such as these have a way of calming even the giddiest of songwriters -- remember when Beck broke up with his fiancée and wrote Sea Change? It's only fitting, then, that Newman sounds a touch sombre when mourning his parent ("They Should Have Shut Down the Streets") or cooing to his newborn ("There's Money in New Wave").
Although such intimate material is a big departure from Newman's origins, Shut Down the Streets just might be his best album in the better part of a decade (since 2005's Twin Cinema). It features some of his lushest, most sonically gorgeous arrangements yet, with twinkling synthesizers giving way to ornate splashes of banjo, flute and pedal steel.
Even more importantly, the album reaffirms him as one of the world's preeminent pop geniuses; with a grittier guitar tone, "Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns" could easily be a long-lost New Pornographers hit. Elsewhere, "I'm Not Talking" and the aforementioned "They Should Have Shut Down the Streets" feature some of Newman's loveliest and most delicate melodies to date.
Now twelve albums into his career (I'm including Newman's work with the New Pornographers and past bands Zumpano and Superconductor in that tally), the 44-year old songwriter has changed his sound and forged a new style that holds up favourably against the best of his back catalogue classics. Considering the legacy that he has already established, that's no small feat.