Album Review: The New Pornographers – Continue As A Guest

[Merge; 2023]

Do you sometimes feel like a guest in your own life? If so, A.C. Newman—the de facto frontperson of The New Pornographers—wants to make clear that you’re not alone. The concept of being a guest drives the group’s latest album, Continue as a Guest, in more ways than one. The album comments on social media (“Pontius Pilate’s Home Movies”) and how we spend much of our days watching rather than living. The album also, more broadly, serves as a statement from a band that understands they’re merely observing today’s cultural landscape from afar, and being content with doing so.

But how content are they, really? Continue as a Guest is, on one hand, their most subdued work since 2007’s Challengers. Yet the album includes some of their sonically darkest songs. A sense of doom carries through the vocal work on “Angelcover.” Anxiety defines the bass line and rapping drums of standout “Pontius Pilate’s Home Movies”, a song that imagines the biblical character sharing videos with his friends (among other woes of social media culture). When the song arrives at the lines “So I got you a map to find a home in the stars, / I hope you get there…” over pointed guitar strums, there’s a sense that the group understands the weight of today’s troubles.

Yet, most of the time, the tone shift on Continue as a Guest comes at the cost of the band’s core appeal—their sense of fun—without a compelling replacement. Don’t expect a “Sing Me Spanish Techno”, “Brill Bruisers,” or “Falling Down The Stairs Of Your Smile”. On this outing, the band has traded in power-pop hooks for at-times intricate, if melodramatic, arrangements. “Last and Beautiful” hardly evolves over its four-plus minute runtime, making for a fundamentally underwhelming song. The album’s title track, which slowly builds with Zach Djanikian’s sax flourishes, pedal steel, and more, is the more successful attempt at this approach. “Marie and the Undersea” comes closest to evoking the expansive, generous energy of the band’s more recent projects and is a welcome breather because of it. The opener “Really Really Light” and closer “Wish Automatic Suite” deliver the album’s most potent energy isn’t a coincidence; the former was co-written by Dan Bejar and repurposed from the band’s Brill Bruisers sessions, the latter feels like an attempt to leave listeners on a high note.

Continue as a Guests marks, in some ways, a turning point for the band. This is their first album with the label Merge. Trapped at home during the pandemic, Newman made a point to learn more about home recording. And to be fair, Continue as a Guest hints at what a more purposeful turn could look like for the band. Album highlight and Neko Case-led “Cat and Mouse With the Light” shuffles around a whimsical swirl of sax lines (Broken Social Scene comes to mind). And speaking of Case, she’s featured more than on previous albums, adding much-needed dimension; her vocal tradeoffs with Newman on “Pontius Pilate’s Home Movies”, for example, add a painful yearning to the song. Djanikian is also an undeniable strength; his sax lines blend wonderfully alongside Case’s vocals on “Marie and the Undersea”, his riffs add a playfulness to “Firework in the Falling Snow” and all but save “Last and Beautiful.”

Again, on the topic of feeling out of place, of always being a guest, Newman makes clear in the album biography that this isn’t a bad thing: “…not feeling like a part of any zeitgeist, but happy to be separate and living your simple life…i t felt like a positive form of acceptance: find your own little nowhere, find some space to fall apart, continue as a guest.” Continue as a Guest certainly reflects that sentiment and can be interpreted as, if not a turn for the group, at most a recalibration or breather.

But let’s not kid ourselves: falling to the fringes isn’t an inevitability for a band with a decades-long career. Last year, Animal Collective resurrected their flagging reputation with a textured and inspired album. Hardly two months ago, Yo La Tengo delivered a dark, timely work that became an instant highlight of a discography that spans nearly 40 years. If guesting is truly all that Newman and co set out to do, then mission accomplished.