There’s a certain inherent risk in being both a solo artist and a member of a group. Especially if you start releasing solo albums almost as regularly as your band does. Though, realistically, no one necessarily expects a solo record to surpass a band’s output.
But that changes if you’re A.C. Newman. Since the bulk of the New Pornographers songs are written by Newman, any solo record would be ripe for comparison. His first, The Slow Wonder, came sandwiched between Electric Version and Twin Cinema, arguably two of the band’s best records. It received pretty universal praise, but now he’s released his second, Get Guilty, following the Pornographers’ least critically well received album, Challengers. The stakes are indeed high.
Admittedly, I’ve struggled with Newman’s work in the past. The man is a master songsmith musically, but the sometimes abstract and obtuse nature of his lyrics can undermine a song’s effectiveness for me. Perhaps that’s just me being too tied into lyrics, but his literate style always leaves me feeling as if I am out of the loop somehow. His finest songs seem to break from that mold, feeding listeners something more concrete to hold onto, even if only in short bursts. It’s no surprise that the best moments on Get Guilty are that way — what is a surprise is how frequently it happens.
The album has an opening, grand salvo in the form of “There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve” and its big, symphonic chorus. This is all immediately upstaged by the first outstanding moment on the album, “The Heartbreak Rides.” “Just out of the woods and yelling down the mountain / all I really wanted was to go downtown, and so we ride / ..she said, ‘Let’s go,’ ‘L.A.,’ she cried. The heartbreak rides for free,” Newman sings, then bounds into a soft but insistent chant of what really sounds like “Yo-ho,” as if he and his accomplice were somehow pirates setting out for the seven seas. It’s a surprisingly poignant song given its truly subtle nature. The chorus could’ve exploded into something much more intense, but Newman’s gift as a songwriter has always been nuance – scalpel over ax. His melodies don’t kill, they infect.
Get Guilty is full of songs where the rhythms utilize unexpected, reserved deployment — the choppy percussion of “Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer;” the pounding, symbolic punches of “Thunderbolts.” This insistence on holding his band back is typical of Newman’s songwriting, letting them completely loose only at scattered intervals throughout the album, making moments like the aforementioned “The Heartbreak Rides” and “The Palace at 4 A.M.” all the more spectacular.
The back third of the album is a bit weak compared to the first – the first four songs are solid winners from front to back; but this doesn’t affect the overall strength of the record. Get Guilty is Newman’s best release as a solo artist and even tops the most recent New Pornographers record, further building on a body of work that is one of the most impressive in the ever-expanding “indie” rock catalogue. words/ j neas
MP3: A.C. Newman :: The Heartbreak Rides
MP3: A.C. Newman :: Like A Hitman, Like A Dancer
Amazon: A.C. Newman – Get Guilty