To some, A.C. Newman’s critical and artistic hot streak hit a minor stumbling block with the New Pornographer’s 2007 album, Challengers. I happen to be in the camp that feels that Challengers was unfairly maligned merely because it did not offer as many of the pristine power-pop thrills offered by the New Pornographers previous albums and his solo album, The Slow Wonder. Perhaps I’m being unfair to Challengers‘ critics, but I suspect the album’s lack of stone-cold instant classics blinded it’s detractors to the album’s maturity and focus. It was the first New Pornographer’s album that didn’t feel like a collection of unconnected, albeit fantastic, songs. It felt like a band with purpose, even if the immediate kicks were a little more difficult to come by.
Then again, I have a tendency to get overly defensive about these sorts of things, and A.C. Newman’s newly released solo album, Get Guilty, suggests that he is not the least bit bothered by the reaction to Challengers. If anything, Newman appears to be increasingly intrigued by the idea of delaying his audience’s gratification. Get Guilty has it’s share of tunes whose charms reveal themselves over several listens, but nothing pops like “Miracle Drug,” or “On the Table.” In fact, nothing even comes close, but that may very well be the driving idea behind Get Guilty. Maybe Newman wants you to appreciate him for his subtler songwriting gifts, not for his ability to write hooks that make you temporarily believe that you don’t need to hear another song for the rest of your life.
So you might be wondering what becomes of Newman when he foregoes the idea of instantly satisfying his audience. Well, for starters, the lyrics become a bigger part of the conversation (Newman could have been personally mocking me in “The Laws Have Changed,” and I doubt I would have noticed or cared, so gloriously tuneful is that song). Newman’s lyrics have never been what anyone would call straightforward, but Get Guilty features his most deliberately abstruse lyrics yet. Opener “There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve” begins with the relatively direct lines, “There are maybe ten or twelve things I could teach you/ After that you’re on your own,” but to follow them up with, “That wasn’t the opening line/ It was the tenth or the twelfth one/ make of that what you will” is to willfully, at least temporarily, confound your listener. One thing is certain though; Newman’s time spent with Dan Bejar has had an effect on him; Newman’s making art about making art. This might put a few listeners off, and not with bad reason. It would seem artists from all across the pop-cultural spectrum are embracing Meta ideas, and like any makeshift movement, it can become easily grating if too often utilized. Fortunately, Newman knows better than to pull too hard on that thread, so this sort of circular introspection is kept to an intriguing minimum.
But no discussion of A.C. Newman’s work is complete without a discussion of the actual tunes, and this is where Get Guilty comes up surprisingly short. Of course, when we say a A.C. Newman album comes up short, it relegates said album to the enviable status of simply above average, but there’s no missing the laurel-resting that blatantly marks Get Guilty’s lesser moments. “Like A Hitman, Like A Dancer” opens with some promising guitar strikes, but those strikes are repeated so often that they only serve to highlight the song’s inability to get off the ground. “Thunderbolts” doesn’t even make an effort to get off the ground, forcing an otherwise lyrically interesting, possibly self-referential song (“We used to throw thunderbolts”) to basically plod along for it’s three-plus minutes.
While it is discouraging to hear a usually masterful craftsmen become merely solid, it’s only fair to treat Get Guilty as a qualified success in the overall musical lexicon, rather than a lowlight in Newman’s career. After all, Get Guilty does still have plenty of moments like the sheer, harmonic rush of the chorus of “Changeling (Get Guilty),” or the beautiful melancholy of “Young Atlantis,” that remind you why you’ve spent so much time following Newman’s work in the first place.