When Carl Newman walks down a New York City sidewalk and seizes some sudden flicker of inspiration by humming bits of melody into his Blackberry, he tends to feel less like a songwriter at work and more like a character out of some fictional satire.
GUITAR PARLAYER "When we first started, the idea of it being a career seemed inconceivable," Newman admits. "We'd just make the record we wanted to make, because why wouldn't we?"
"These days the way I write seems almost insane," he says over the phone from Brooklyn, where he's lived for some years since relocating from Vancouver. "You know that episode of Mr. Show that's based on Amadeus but it's about John Philouza, the marching-band composer? How he just marches down the street making booms and crashing noises, and that's how he composes? That's a real exaggeration, but these days I kinda feel that way."
Newman's second solo album as A.C. Newman, Get Guilty (Matador), is full of this sort of quasi-regal, fractured-pop technique, an amalgam of '70s rock-radio cherry bombs with a Mad Libbed tongue and a penchant for structural excursus. (He'll most likely play a lot of it when he comes to the Paradise this Saturday.) Songs stutter and lurch, expand and contract, full of musical fanfare ("There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve") and the language of compulsive mantra ("Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer"). The hooks — with their airy guitar-pop vocal harmonies — burrow deep before twisting into new shapes; the lyrics, more evocative than explicit, often acquiesce to the mood of the music. ("Make of that what you will," goes one refrain, daring you to come to your own conclusions.) If you assigned this music a genre, it might be "orchestral garage": the fantastic ambitions of a scrappy realist.
Newman's solo debut, The Slow Wonder (2004), was a stripped-down affair, recorded when his band, the New Pornographers, took a year off. He made the record simply to keep busy, yet it proved a practical exercise. "It cleans the palate. It's nice to make a record and go back to the band — it feels like a fresh start." And so Get Guilty is not some lark to pass the time while the New Pornographers take another break (Newman's bandmate Neko Case is also promoting a new solo album) — it's the product of a new-found force of habit. This time around, Newman has rounded up more than the usual suspects; he's got Superchunk's Jon Wurster, Mates of State, and Nicole Atkins. Get Guilty underscores his solo subplot's autonomy while furthering his distinctive voice.
He's been developing that singular songwriting voice, the one you can now identify as his in mere seconds, since the early '90s — first in Zumpano and then as the de facto leader of the New Pornographers, the Canadian band who've produced some of this new century's most electrifying power pop. It's taken him years of trial and error to find that balance of style and skill in his own writing. He's still tampering with the formula. "With Zumpano — which wasn't my first band, but the first band where I seriously tried writing songs — I think I was totally reaching beyond my ability. It may have been endearing in a way, but I remember coming out of that band thinking that I wanted to take that æsthetic and use it in a way that I could pull off very well."