A.C. Newman: “Get Guilty”
Carl Newman has said in interviews that the title of his latest LP, Get Guilty, was chosen less for whatever legal, moral, or spiritual connotations it might have and more for the sheer sound of it– the alliteration, the cadence of the words, the way they shape the mouth and roll off the tongue. And that’s a pretty good indicator as to just how Newman’s mind works, at least when it comes to his music. He is an audiophile, a true sensualist who revels in sound itself– in the different tones and timbres of instruments, in the effect of layering certain sounds over others, in the different characters lent by different recording equiptment.
It’s a bit rare to find a musician quite like Newman: A purveyor of power pop who cares as much about sound as song. After all, power pop is all about cranking out as many two-and-a-half to three-minute gems, loaded with as many hooks, as possible. But Newman is a bit more complex and ambitious than that. His songs sometimes take their time to unfold, and he’s as concerned with texture and nuance of sound as he is the hooks. And it seems that he ventures farther down that road with each new album he makes; on his last project as the ringleader of the power pop collective New Pornographers, the slow-burning Challengers, Newman and Co. turned down the volume and took their feet off the gas for a quiet, subdued set that took some time to grow on you. And Get Guilty, only his second album recorded by himself and under the A.C. moniker, is a completely different animal altogether, both a significantly more powerful and muscular album than Challengers and a more nuanced, layered recording than his previous album, 2004’s wonderful and insanely catchy The Slow Wonder.
It’s still very much a power pop album– it seems Newman can do nothing else but pen finely-honed, hooky gems, bursting with infectious energy and glee– but it isn’t the all-out, electric guitar throwdown of the New Pornos’ Twin Cinema. The difference is partly one of feel, as this album is a slightly moodier affair, but it also has a lot to do with the way it’s recorded. Newman still lets loose with some choice power chords, but much of the album’s punch comes from drummer Jon Wurster, whose splashing cymbals and gently rattling hand percussion give these songs their accent, their flavor. The album was recorded very quickly and spontaneously in the studio, too, which means that, rather than feel neatly manicured and carefully planned, they’re alive with the flash of improvisation and the interplay of great musicians, banging around in a room together.
Newman still aims for the gut on several songs, as on the sing-along title track and the pure pop gem “Submarines of Stockholm,” but, just as often, the charm of the songs comes from the little touches, like the nervous tension of the pulsating strings in “Thunderbolts,” the twinkling pianos in “There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve,” the imaginitive percussion in “Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer” and the layering of acoustic and electric instuments in “Elemental.” Newman covers a wider range of emotional terrain, too, beginning with the pomp and circumstance of the stately opener “There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve”– which sounds like the perfect processional for an indie pop high school graduation– and immediately seguing into the slow-building crescendos of “The Heartbreak Rides,” which captures a sense of catharsis not unlike Twin Cinema‘s “The Bleeding Heart Show.” And he’s a master of album sequencing, too; never has he recorded anything as subdued as darkly restrained as “Thunderbolts,” and he heightens its impact by following it with the frantic drumming and chiming keyboards of “The Palace at 4 A.M.,” the first single and a worthy heir to The Slow Wonder‘s standout, “Miracle Drug.”
The sensualist’s ear Newman brings to his arrangements and his strong melodies carries over into his lyrics, which aren’t exactly straightforward, but still manage to be expressive because of their command of the sounds of the language. Newman is more about abstract feelings, oddball imagery, and bizarre non-sequiters and jokes than he is narrative– the album’s most direct song is “Thunderbolts,” a wistful tale of Greek deities in their youth, and the album cover seems to portray a cage match involving unicorns, which might tell you something about where Newman’s mind is– so it’s unlikely that you’ll know exactly what he’s talking about much of the time, but damn if doesn’t all sound really cool.
But of course, merely sounding cool isn’t enough to make a great album, and, though Get Guilty is an album filled with small, subtle pleasures, Newman hasn’t forsaken his sense of craft as a pop songwriter, and every song here is typically catchy and irresistibly fun. Since it is very much a craftsman’s album, it doesn’t bowl you over on the first listen, but all the little details quickly add up into something very warm and appealing, which makes it a grower, but also one of Newman’s finest albums ever, and certainly the one that most amply rewards close, attentive, and frequent listening.