As the frontman for one of the most dangerously named bands of all time, Vancouverite Allan Carl Newman has brought an elasticity to the reasonably structured power pop format. Across five albums, the New Pornographers have shifted from one strength to another, developing a musical arsenal as broad as any other band playing their game. Even though their music has always maintained a caffeinated, off-the-wall vibe, they are uniquely gifted at building albums.
Shut Down the Streets is AC Newman’s third solo effort, following on the heels of 2009’s Get Guilty. Eyes closed, this is a New Pornographers record, a natural extension of both Together and Challengers. But through its ten tracks, Shut Down the Streets reveals itself to be Newman’s most personal record to date. Underscored by the birth of his son and the death of his mother, the give-and-take exchange that life offers up is a central motif that he repeatedly returns to. That may sound like a bummer, and as such, one of the album’s biggest surprises is how well it copes with such heavy themes. This record is life-affirming, not downtrodden.
Carrying these topics as he does, Newman brings a sense of loss and contemplation to the proceedings; but at it’s core, Streets is holding out for optimism. There’s some gorgeous material here, starting with opener “I’m Not Talking.” With an almost twee blend of electronics and organic acoustics, it manages to be uplifting while it squeezes out a tear or two. Seemingly at ease, Newman announces right off the bat: “I like the way things are.” Once again, his ear for melody is strong, but more close-chested than before. Other cuts, specifically “You Could Get Lost Out Here,” pay tribute to what Newman has described as “the psychedelic sounds of the late 70s singer/songwriter.”
The universality of the themes on Streets is a far cry from Newman’s usual stream-of-consciousness ramblings. The continued presence of Neko Case also prevents it from breaking away entirely from the New Pornographers sound. “Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns” (an incognito NP title if there ever was one) borrows the acoustic dynamism of Together, although it is fairly minimal by those standards. The appropriately-titled “Strings” is a pivotal point, the transition between Streets’ two halves. The gentler part two is nowhere near as strong as part one. This is amended somewhat by “Hostages,” a lovely meditation on personal growth, luck, and the deciding between the choices that life offers us. “We’re lucky because we don’t like to lose,” sings Newman. While the lyrics are occasionally obscure, they successfully mimic the feel of fumbling into a new chapter of your life with a limited grasp on what you’re doing, obviously something Newman has experienced in the past year.
The highlights here are as good as anything Newman has written in the past six or seven years, and the only worthy criticism of the filler (“Wasted English”) is that, at worst, it’s too polite. He has nimbly moved on to a deeper, more profound set of topics without losing his identity, and Shut Down the Streets successfully infuses what could fly as an intimate acoustic set with contagious pop hooks. This is yet another gift from an uncommonly literate musical mind.