A.C. Newman and Neko Case, or, the ironist and the tornado

guitarthumbicon Get Guilty, the second solo album from head New Pornographer A.C. (aka Carl) Newman, out this past January, opens with mock-grandiose percussion and guitar, undercutting an arena-scale sound with undercurrents of knowing goofiness. “Of course I’m only kidding,” the big rhythm and plodding chords say. “I’m far too sophisticated to be able to record an arrangement like this in earnest.” When the vocals of come in, the lyrics preemptively deconstruct any meaning that the song (called “There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve”) might have subsequently developed: “There are maybe ten or twelve things that I can teach you,” Newman sings. “After that, well, I think you’re on your own / And that wasn’t the opening line, that was the tenth or twelfth / Make of that what you will.” In other words: I don’t know much, and even if I did know anything, I’m certainly not going bother trying to put it in a song.

As far as Newman’s lyrics go, these lines are relatively transparent and substantive—more often, he takes an approach that doesn’t even admit the possibility of literal meaning or sense. Words seem to be chosen for their sound, and more importantly, for the mood they create. As a songwriter, Newman has neither a confessional impulse nor any message he intends to convey. Instead, his songs and arrangements strive to tap into the wordless, meaningless heart of pop music. He wants to give listeners an unadulterated fix of pop’s tuneful sugar and aching teenage longing. He wants to return us all to age fourteen, lying on the bedroom floor with headphones on, when we could still listen to a record with fresh, inexperienced, mostly innocent ears, admitting rhythms and melodies deep inside our awkward bodies while being deeply, uncomprehendingly moved by the expression of desires and needs we were only beginning to understand. In pop music, the words are never really the point—even for the very best lyricists, they’re rarely more than icing on the cake.

Newman possesses extraordinary gifts as a tunesmith, and has a very keen ear for how to wring emotional responses by making reference to past styles and genres at just the right moments in the arrangements of his songs. When he brings the full force of his craft to bear—as he does on several of the tunes on Get Guilty, like “Prophets,” with its aching, tuneful chorus, and “The Collected Works,” which successfully taps into some kind of primal head-nodding, fist-pumping impulse deep inside us all—the results are both engaging and very fun.

But just as often, Newman loses me—and it’s almost always because of things like the self-conscious ironies in the album’s opening tune. They’re like bites of the fruit of the tree of knowledge: if you gobble them up, you’ll be wiser and know the truth, but you will no longer be able to receive pop music with the same kind of wide-open, unquestioning, unthinking joy. I’m sure for many listeners, it’s exactly this knowing self-consciousness that makes Newman’s tunes approachable—they like having their sophistication complimented, and enjoy feeling like they’re in on the joke. They understand that pop music is full of lies. Now that they’re a little older and have seen a thing or two, they know better than to trust pop’s adolescent dreaminess. Songs that go after that teenage feeling in earnest are embarrassing, a bit hard to approach. They come a bit too close to actually capturing what it feels like to be a teenager—and nobody would want that, right?

Incidentally, “That Teenage Feeling” happens to be the title of a song by Newman’s fellow New Pornographer Neko Case. Case’s lyrics are often slippery, too, but unlike Newman, she does not indulge in irony for the sake of creating studied, self-conscious emotional distance. This particular song (from Fox Confessor Brings the Flood), has an unabashed, unconcealed emotionalism. It is in no way naive, but at the same time it hungers to capture the all-encompassing power of teenage emotion. Case does not nod and wink at us; instead, her big voice soars over the chorus. And though the stuttering rhythm guitar incorporates the old-fashioned pulse of a teenybopper ballad from the fifties, this is not an ironic gesture: she really means it, and she’s not afraid to admit it.

This is, in a nutshell, why I think Case is a vastly more compelling songwriter and performer than Newman. Newman wants us to laugh a little at the silliness and artificiality of popular music, while also indulging our emotional response to the pop song form. Ultimately, though, he doesn’t want us to feel anything in earnest; earnestness is always suspect for him, and must be undermined. Case, on the other hand, wants to use all the tools of a knowing, self-conscious adult musician to communicate ideas and emotions with her songs. She wants to move her listeners without condescending or making a joke of it.

On her new album Middle Cyclone, Case again brings her tremendously powerful voice to bear on a collection of structurally adroit songs thrumming with mystery and myth. Her opening move blows Newman’s away. In “This Tornado Loves You,” she takes the voice of a tornado to express the frustrations of a hurt and angry but devoted lover: “My love I am the speed of sound / I left them motherless, fatherless / Their souls dangling inside out from their mouths / But it’s never enough / I want you.” This is an audacious move for a songwriter, casting her love as having the force of a natural disaster—audacious, because it’s an open admission of real feeling, and though there’s some humor to it, the intent is deadly serious. She leaves no shelter of insincerity for herself to take cover in; as an artist, she puts herself right out there, undefended before her listeners. She goes on: “Carved your name across three counties / Grounded in with bloody hides / Their broken necks will lie in the ditch until you stop it, stop this madness / I want you.” A minute in, Case has already treated us to an inventive, appealing premise executed with uncommonly rich and vivid imagery. But when the bridge comes, the song becomes more complicated, taking on an unambiguous, open sadness. “I miss, I miss, I miss,” Case repeats, as if she’s stuck on the word or the feeling, unable to get past. “I miss how you sigh yourself to sleep / When I bring the springtime across your sheets.” You can feel the strength of her speaker’s love and longing; Case makes you believe that these emotions contain the force of a tornado, and will not be contained.

The rest of Middle Cyclone is similarly successful: Case draws on imagery of weather, nature, and animals to spin out moving, wise, and enthralling songs about human relationships, and the relationships between humans and the natural world. Her voice is an astounding instrument, and it dominates the whole of the record. Case puts most singers to shame with both the raw power and the nuanced subtlety of her performances.

Neko Case writes songs for adults. It’s not that she fails to understand the artificiality and manipulations and falsehoods of pop songs; rather, she recognizes that perpetually pointing out this fact (as Newman does) will only take your art so far. Ultimately, Newman’s brand of knowingness strikes me as deeply cynical: it’s a rejection of the idea that popular music has the capacity to genuinely move a sophisticated listener with the same kind of immediacy and force with which a pop song moves a teenager. For me, performers like Case make an extremely powerful argument to the contrary. Her music is both sophisticated and sincere, and goes right for the heart without feeling the need to resort to any distancing poses.

Listening to Case sing on New Pornographers songs (written by Newman, not Case) is a fascinating experience: she belts Newman’s lyrics out impressively enough, but rarely achieves anything resembling the emotional power of her vocals on her own records. Their collaboration is at its best on Mass Romantic, where the rough-and-ready arrangements offer less space for irony and allusion. Songs like “Letter to an Occupant” or “Mass Romantic” create a happy medium between Newman’s aesthetic and Case’s: there’s still little effort to make the songs mean much of anything, but they’re at the same time full of straightforward power pop life. Newman’s very best tune, however, is probably “The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism,” which doesn’t feature Case, and is still played for a joke, but also contains a buoyant sense of boozy joy and a sharp edge of bitterness. In other words: “Descent” actually has subject matter, and Newman more or less treats that subject matter as if it might have some genuine meaning and emotional resonance. I wish Newman would put his considerable skills as a craftsman of melodies and arrangements to this kind of use more often. I like his records well enough, but they very rarely move me.


1 Response to “A.C. Newman and Neko Case, or, the ironist and the tornado”

  1. 1 Laura Heller April 29, 2009 at 12:48 AM

    While searching for the lyrics to “This Tornado Loves You” I came across your blog entry here and read parts about Newman but every word about Case. Thanks for sharing, and for writing, such a wonderful review. I’ve not heard of A.C. Newman, which goes to show I have only recently heard of Neko Case. I fell in love with Blacklisted, found the free download of “People Got a Lotta Nerve” on the Anti-Records site, and proceeded to get Middle Cyclone and The Tigers Have Spoken. I still have to seek out Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, but I will, oh yes, I will. 🙂

    Aside from her captivating voice, and the great musical talent that moves the song, the lyrics are so well-written: songwriting for adults is right! It definitely helped my initial impressions of her knowing that she is supported by Anti-Records, which brings round my adoration of Tom Waits. 🙂

    Anyway, end my ramble and I shall get some sleep. Just wanted to say, in so many more words, thank you.

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