Rating:For well over a decade, The New Pornographers have operated as a seemingly impossible circus act, a baffling troupe of musicians brimming with talent and idiosyncrasies. A band this large and filled with this many personalities should have fallen into turmoil years ago, but somehow they’ve just trucked along, making solid album after solid album. But the circus tent had to come down someday, the magic faded, and so the odds have finally caught up with The New Pornographers on Brill Bruisers.
Their first album in four years after the severely underrated Together, Brill Bruisers is a bit of a mess. Not the frantic-brilliant-ideas-popping-up-10-at-a-time mess that resulted in songs like “The Electric Version,” but instead a simply incoherent mess. The record has little flow, in part due to the various and diverse voices in the band. A.C. Newman is still the ringleader, but both Neko Case and Dan Bejar (as Destroyer) have released acclaimed albums in the time between Together and Brill Bruisers. Bejar seems particularly lost. His voice soared in hazy indie-disco on Kaputt, but his nasal delivery seems out of place in the colorful swirls of Brill Bruisers’ instrumentation. “War on the East Coast” sounds like he’s reaching for something profound, but he finds only faux-‘80s schlock. His duet with Black Mountain’s Amber Webber on “Born with a Sound” is excellent and stirring, but the generic guitar strum lacks the punch needed to lift their sentiments. “Spidyr” attempts to be dynamic, but fizzles due to its short run time.
Newman’s songs fair better, but they feel insubstantial. The airy strings of “Hi-Rise” make an already downtempo tune positively sleepy. “Dancehall Domine” is the album’s most frustrating song thanks to fantastic verses that dart and dodge, only to run into the brick wall that is the chorus, sapping the song of interest. “Champions of Red Wine” has promise but never works up enough poise or energy to be engaging. The most disappointing thing about Brill Bruisers is that it only adds one measly song to The New Pornographers’ canon of great songs. On “Backstairs,” Newman muses on fame with a slippery tone and a seductive vice that infiltrates the song’s very core. It’s a sinuous groove and a welcome diversion. Unfortunately, it’s followed by the insipid “Marching Orders,” ruining any momentum “Backstairs” had built. Brill Bruisers has a few other solid tracks.” “Wide Eyes,” “You Tell Me Why” and the title track are fine songs, but are substandard when placed next to their brothers and sisters from better albums. The curtain has closed, for now, on what I hope is only a temporary setback. The band has too much talent for mediocrity to become the new norm. I have faith this crazy circus will rise again.