“I mean, when people say it’s a collective, I’m like, ‘Whoa.’ They think we’re sitting cross-legged in a circle planning our next year, deciding who’s going to do what chores.”
Newman’s often acerbic wit has sweetened a bit. A successful band and a successful relationship will do that. The effects of a happier Carl Newman on the music, however, are incidental. Challengers is the quietest New Pornographers record yet, but each release since the joyously fractious Mass Romantic has been progressively more subdued, and that, like a penchant for melancholy, is what moves him as a songwriter. His lyrics have always been on the inscrutable side, so indie sleuths would do better not to think of this as his American Album.
“It’s not like when I’m writing anywhere I’m walking the streets taking in the ambiance. I write at home in my apartment with my guitar. I moved to Brooklyn for this girl I loved, so there are three or four songs that are stories about that, but it could have just as easily been about any other city.”
The most New York song on the record is in fact Bejar’s “Myriad Harbour,” a typically (for Bejar) sexualized reflection on the city, complete with references to specific corners. Newman speculates that it was a reaction to his move. (Elsewhere, in “The Spirit of Giving In,” Bejar sings, “I was sick of America and her screaming decay.”) But Newman — bemusement at the good-natured jab aside — doesn’t parse Bejar’s lyrics, any more than he’d want others to delve too deeply into his own.
“There are songs on this that are very clearly love songs. It’s still not really clear, nothing says, ‘I love you because you have pretty green eyes, but I am trying to say that in a poetic way.’ There’s some songs where I’m trying to do that, like, ‘Go Places.’ It still comes off as a little strange.”
“Go Places” is indeed lovely, with vocals by Katherine Calder, who has taken over much of the female-vocal heavy lifting from Neko Case. (Calder is Newman’s niece. In the band’s bio for 2005’s Twin Cinema, he explains, “About seven years ago, I found out I had a long-lost sister, who had two kids. I knew Kathryn became a musician, but only recently friends saw her band play and raved to me about her talent. I thought, ‘You can’t have your niece in your band! It’s just not done!’ It turns out that it is done.”) The song fits Calder’s winsome vocals with lyrics like “our arms filled with miracles” and “deus ex machina/Good morning Christina.” It conjures holding hands at the point where that first means something. For Newman, whose melodic gifts can result in all manner of pop chicanery, it’s remarkably direct.
“I do admire writers who can do that, like to be able to write a song like ‘Pale Blue Eyes.’ It’s so simple and beautiful; I’d like to be able to do that. It’s a real tightrope act, because you run the risk of sounding like ‘You’re Beautiful’ by James Blunt, and though that could be a recipe for success, in my mind it’s a recipe for disaster.” The Brian Wilson–inflected “My Rights Versus Yours” and especially the gorgeous “Unguided” are as romantic in their own way, but they’re more opaque and open-ended.