What happens when a nation that was born to run, and to rev engines into the wild frontier, runs into the full stop that is our current social and political climate? The answer, my friend, is somewhere “In the Morse Code of Brake Lights,” as The New Pornographers would have it on their eighth album. There’s a deep climatic unease running through these 11 tracks that’s matched only by the sheer musical glee with which the band addresses the prevailing mood of the moment. It’s an album in which foreboding and bliss somehow go hand in hand—mixing founder A.C. Newman’s nearly symphonic levels of pop arrangement and harmony with a careening quality that feels unsafe at any speed (to quote the famous Ralph Nader phrase that the opening track also borrows).
“Sometimes unintentional influences come in, and then after you start to notice them, you start consciously doing it,” says Newman. “I was about two-thirds of the way through the record when I began to notice that lyrically so much of it was pointing toward car songs. The opening track is ‘You’ll Need a Backseat Driver,’ and that was a metaphor that seemed to be running through other songs, too. Next to the love song, I feel like the car song is one of the most iconic kinds of songs in pop music, from Chuck Berry to the present. There was so much of that throughout it that I started thinking: ‘Oh, no, there’s too many references to cars on this record!’ And then I thought, no, that’s good—people might think it’s a concept album,” he laughs. “Let’s roll with that.”
But Newman’s automotive concerns are very different from Chuck Berry’s, or Bruce Springsteen’s. “Of course, because I’m a person with some degree of empathy and it’s 2019, there couldn’t help but be this sort of anger and panic at the state of the world that runs through everything,” Newman says. “And I think that lends itself to the car metaphor. We’re in this vehicle and it doesn’t stop moving and we don’t know where we’re going.” In a time of heightened shared anxiety, maybe it’s better not to know. “I think it was Robert Louis Stevenson who said, ‘Better to travel hopefully than to arrive’—which I basically paraphrase in the first chorus of the first song.”
The New Pornographers have been road-worthy since their founding in 2000. But there’s no mistaking that, with In the Morse Code of Brake Lights (their second release for Concord, following 2017’s Whiteout Conditions), what has long been referred to as a “supergroup” has actually coalesced into something like, you know, an actual group—one with a regular, solidified lineup, the presence of someone as independently famous as Neko Case as co-lead vocalist notwithstanding.
Newman is doing all the songwriting now, save for a few lines contributed by former (and possibly future) member Dan Bejar. Drummer Joe Seiders is into his second album with the group, and you’ll notice his presence on the kit especially in the opening couple of tracks. “If there was any song that had the biggest influence on us in terms of its drumming, it’s ‘Dreaming’ by Blondie,” Newman says. “I always loved that that song is essentially a drum solo, and at times we do that.” His niece is a greater instrumental presence this time: “In terms of keyboards, this record has such a Kathryn Calder stamp. There was a point where she started playing this part on ‘Solomon’ and I feel like it just changed the record. When I heard what she did with it, I said, ‘Do this on every song.’” Longtime touring member Simi Stone is participating on record for the first time, as well.
At the same time, Newman is also sharpening his auteur chops a little by taking over as sole producer. Bassist John Collins, his usual co-producer, “was having a kid, and that coincided with me becoming a lot more savvy in the studio,” Newman says. “John was always the guy who was doing a lot of the audio manipulation and messing with arpeggiators and echoes, and I was always the guy standing behind him going, ‘Yeah, that’s cool. Let’s do more of that.’ On this record it ended up that I was the guy doing it and the guy going, ‘That’s cool. Let’s make sure we don’t lose it.’ So that to me was the big difference. And it was very fun. Although I had to be careful not to spend too much time with myself, because you can just descend into madness.”
The New Pornographers still remain one of the few bands of any significance to employ multiple lead vocalists—a province usually left to obscure and un-influential little bands like the Beatles, so you can see why it never caught on much. “If you listen to this record, it has slightly more Neko than usual,” Newman points out. “But I didn’t really think of the balance as much this time around. Especially when Dan was singing on the records, how much to use each singer was always on my mind, in the sequencing and in general. And on this record, I didn’t really care at all. I thought, if it’s almost all me, then so be it, or if it’s more Neko, then so be it… Maybe it’s just the way the music industry has changed—in that it’s going off in directions that we don’t even understand—that when I’m making a record, I think, why even guess what the right thing to do is? Just do it, whatever makes sense to you.”
These questions do come up, even as the lineup finally stabilizes. “I’ve always liked the idea of the Pornographers kind of morphing as we go along,” Newman says. “When we put out the first record, I didn’t think of the reality of what are we going to do if this thing becomes popular? I used to joke around that I wanted it to be a computer program that you could feed songs through and they would come out the other side as The New Pornographers, and it didn’t necessarily matter who was in the band. But then a weird thing happened where people in the band became semi-famous. And then my dream of being the Alan Parsons Project, with everyone being faceless, went up in smoke. There’s too many people with personalities in this band,” he jokes, knowing that, even as an “I Robot” fan, that’s not such a bad problem to have.
When Whiteout Conditions came out two years ago, Newman openly acknowledged the Jeff Lynne influence, along with the simultaneous addition of a kraut-rock pulse. This time it was less about Lynne’s influence on the synth stacking than on actual strings, with the quartet Strength of Materials playing parts written and arranged by Newman’s fellow Canadian Ford Pier. “There are about four songs on the record that are fairly string heavy, and I didn’t want them to sound like your average strings,” says Newman. “If they were going to sound like anything, I wanted them to sound like ELO, because I will always love ELO. It’s an influence I will never be embarrassed about. We use a string quartet that was doubled—which I think is the early ELO method, before he could afford entire orchestras.”
That’s not to say the entire record feels ornate, by any stretch of the hard-driving indie-pop-rock-and-roll imagination. Even as Newman was considering how to add strings onto some of the songs, he was thinking about how to strip others further back.
“The influences that made us do Whiteout Conditions felt like a natural progression, and those are still with us,” he says. “But I was also wanting to do songs that felt more like a throwback to older songs we used to play. The second song on the record, ‘The Surprise Knock,’ had a different feel when we first recorded it—and I wouldn’t mind releasing that version at some point. But as I was listening to it, I thought, ‘Why don’t we play this song like New Pornographers 2005?’ Then we just replayed it with that feel. I thought enough time has passed that I feel like I can play songs that sort of sound like a classic Pornographers sound and not feel like I’m repeating myself, because it’s been so long. That was definitely a part of it: just wanting to…I hate to say ‘get back,’ but just get more slightly raucous and sounding more like a band.”
The track “You Won’t Need Those Where You’re Going” definitely doesn’t sound like a band, because it’s just Newman and a piano, an approach he modeled with the simplicity of Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm” in mind. But that, too, felt reminiscent of a previous period in the Pornographers’ oeuvre. “That felt like a throwback to something like Twin Cinema, which I think was the first record where we really branched out and just decided that we can do whatever we want, and we get to decide what a Pornographers song is or what it sounds like.”
Lyrically, no one will accuse In the Morse Code of Brake Lights of simplicity, with its fantastic rushes of wordplay. He’s the first to admit that this isn’t just a “cars” album, but that there are mixed metaphors everywhere. It’s the way he works, as he tries to cloak the blatant social and political statements he might make in interviews or on Twitter in a language that is both wittier and ultimately more mystical.
“There is so much politics that runs through all the lyrics, and it’s inescapable,” he says. “I try not to constantly go on about it, but it’s a very scary time. I try not to be too explicit, and I’m going to try to make it a little more wrapped up in metaphor and playing with the sound of words. Sometimes I do wonder to myself, is this completely inscrutable, or just completely too straightforward? In a song like ‘Colossus of Rhodes,’ the lyrics are very much about this time. I began to think of the Colossus of Rhodes as this metaphor for America, like the eighth wonder of the world, and nobody knows quite what happened to it, but it fell. The fear is that we’re kind of at the end of the American Empire. I read the news and try and piece everything together, and more and more I can’t see a way out of this, there’s nothing to go back to. We can’t go back to 2008 or 2009 and everybody’s excited because Obama won, because those eight years caused something to become very rabid. But I don’t want to write the ‘I hate Trump’ song—even though I wish somebody would. I’m worried that the kind of song I write, unlike hip-hop or something, might make that message seem less serious or more flippant, so I try to be a little bit more obscure.
“The question is, is it acceptable in this day and age to be an artist who has no opinion, or who says, ‘Oh, I just want to have fun and entertain people’? I think of World War II, where there were these songs that were there just to entertain people, like ‘Ain’t We Got Fun’—light music so people could have fun, because it was not a fun time and they needed something to distract them. But now we have nothing but distraction. Now we have a thousand times the distractions we had in World War II, and I think, do I really want to add to them? It makes you think about pompous things like the role of the artist in society.”
It comes out in songs like “We’re Gonna Need Some Giants,” which is “just about the politics of right now. You want somebody to come save us—or the Mueller report is going to save us!—but you realize nobody’s going to come save us.” The title of that song came about when Newman was playing a tape backward and heard himself singing what sounded like the title phrase. He then fashioned that into a song and had Caldwell sing those words—forwards—over his backwards version.
The first single, “Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile,” has both light and serious origins. “There are so many songs like ‘the something of love’—you know, there’s ‘The Book of Love,’ ‘The Freeway of Love’…Then I thought of ‘falling down the stairs of your love,’ and I thought, that kind of works. I think it has that element of how do you deal with the ideas of love and happiness in this world right now? When current events are stressful, that makes a stress on people’s relationships, and you’re trying to figure out how to be happy in this loving relationship in this world that seems ugly at every turn, which is not as easy as it seems. Of course, ‘love’ ultimately morphed into ‘smile,’ but I like the metaphor of love as something that you fall down.”
Falling, or imminent crashing…it’s all related in The New Pornographer’s “Morse Code” worldview. But there is more than one interpretation to many of the songs, as Newman points out with “You Won’t Need Those Where You’re Going,” the emancipating title of which could portend either fleeing into the arms of a freeing love or doom. “It can be both, you know,” he points out. “I like that ambivalence. And considering I start each line with ‘my love,’ I guess it’s a love song. Just because you have found a love doesn’t mean you’re not doomed, and just because you’re doomed doesn’t mean we can’t find love.”
In the end, for all its automotive motifs, In the Morse Code of Brake Lights is the opposite of something like a traditional rock & roll “Thunder Road.” But for Newman, there is catharsis is in the traveling, even if there is no exit. “The longer I play music,” he says, “I realize how much just defiance there is in all the music I’ve always made. Not just against some societal injustice, but also just defying sadness, or defying your lot in life. I want to use music to get to a better place, which is what I’ve always done, I realize. It’s a way to reach out of yourself.” The album may not offer an escape from these sometimes terrifying modern times, but it’s a hell of a revivifying rest stop.