Shut Down The Streets
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
The songwriting of A.C. Newman, lead tunesmith of indie power-pop heroes The New Pornographers, has always been a bit of a paradox. On the one hand, his lyrics, intricate and impressionistic, don’t seem all that catchy on the page. Yet, once his irresistible hooks kick in, listeners tend to find themselves shouting along with head-scratching refrains like “Sing Me Spanish Techno” as if they were singing “She Loves You.”
Newman has a seemingly boundless ability to churn out albums full of such songs, so much so that his career with his regular band can’t contain them all. Shut Down The Streetsis his third solo album to fill in the gaps between band releases, and it finds the songwriter as close to straightforward confessional mode he’s ever likely to be.
That’s not to say that he has oversimplified his lyrical approach; he can still turn out complex couplets like “Long before you were a patent pending/There was a time you were the artist friendly one” that somehow sound unforced. Yet the overall meaning of these songs isn’t that hard to glean, with Newman taking on subjects like births, deaths, and romantic entanglements in typically roundabout yet affecting fashion.
In many ways, the album is reminiscent of TNP’s 2007 release, Challengers, in that it eases back on the throttle just a tad. When Newman takes this approach, the tunefulness of his songs is more easily appreciated. Warm horns and keyboards bathe mid-tempo numbers like “Not Talking” and “Do Your Own Time,” which breeze out of the speakers like something that Paul Simon might have turned out in the 70’s.
For the diehard New Pornographer fans, Newman tosses in a few can’t-miss jolts of energy here and there, the best of these being “Encyclopedia Of Classic Takedowns,” which features old buddy Neko Case providing close harmony. Yet A.C. sounds just as home gently imagining a future conversation with his newborn in which he winkingly advises him that there’s “Money In New Wave.”
Shut Down The Streets really peaks at the end with a pair of downcast slow-builders which strike just the right balance of melancholy and melody. “Troubadour” marries a banjo riff to some moody atmospherics for a surprisingly lovely effect. The closing title track is a meditation on the death of Newman’s mother. In it, he envisions his grief writ large in an outpouring of mourning from all over the world. It’s a powerful flash of emotion that might have seemed out of place on TNP albums but fits perfectly here.
For his next trick, Newman will most likely head back under The New Pornographers’ umbrella and churn out more sugar-rush anthems with hooks aplenty. Based on how effective and affecting Shut Down The Street is, he should leave a little room for the contemplative stuff. This album is more than a change of pace; it’s an impressive flexing of A.C. Newman’s versatile songwriting muscles.