After more than two decades fronting one of the most heralded power-pop acts of the century, Carl “A.C.” Newman of The New Pornographers finds himself at a familiar crossroads. It’s a junction faced by many artists whose hands wind up on the wheel of a bonafide rock ’n’ roll legacy: How do you move a long-running project forward creatively, without stretching it beyond the breaking point?
“It’s not that I want to constantly reinvent myself all the time. I just want to put out songs that feel necessary to me, and make sure I’m not repeating myself,” says the 55-year-old songwriter, guitarist and bandleader who co-founded the once Vancouver-based project in 1997 with alt-country queen Neko Case and Dan Bejar of Destroyer. “I didn’t want to put out songs where I’m thinking, ‘Well, there’s already another version of that song out there — I already wrote that song.’”
But on the opening shot of Continue as a Guest, the ninth LP from the indie-rock behemoth and first on Merge Records, what you’re hearing is Newman’s re-animation of a New Pornographers song that never saw the light of day. Written by Bejar during sessions for 2014’s Brill Bruisers, his last (so far) with the onetime “supergroup,” the scrapped bit of music stuck with Newman, who found himself swept up by the challenge of breathing new life into it. Without going back to the original recording, he worked to build a living body around a chorus scrawled from memory: We sit around and talk about the weather / My heart just like a feather — really, really light.
“I didn’t want it to feel like I wrote the verses and he wrote the chorus. I wanted it to feel like a complete song. And that was work, but it was also a game at the same time,” he says. “So it ended up being experimental, even though the end product is what any normal person might hear and say, ‘Well, it’s a pop song.’ It’s like, ‘Yes, but it took a weird road to get there.’”
‘How can we make a cool song?’
The New Pornographers are no strangers to “weird roads,” and the line between experimentation and structure has been a central part of their story from the get-go. Newman originally split songwriting duties with Case and Bejar, but while the former’s commanding vocals are still a central part of the music — including her lead turns on Continue as a Guest standouts “Cat and Mouse with the Light” and “Marie and the Undersea” — the band’s creative force is now guided squarely by Newman’s melody-rich brand of snappy and singular songwriting.
“I have a style of song that I write, so I don’t fight that. I’m just going to write what I write, to a certain degree. I don’t have that much control,” he says. “It’s when I go into the studio and start messing around with arrangements that things become different. And these 10 songs were just the ones that felt like the record I wanted to make.”
But Newman set out to make more than a new smattering of pop songs on Continue as a Guest. Drawing its title from the language of online registration portals, the pandemic lockdown-era LP explores weighty themes with a feather-light touch as the band’s now-primary songwriter unpacks complicated feelings about connection and isolation, belonging and not-belonging, in a brave new world.
“It sums up a lot of things I was feeling about living here in America during that time, and about being a musician — trying to make a life for yourself in a place you don’t necessarily feel part of,” the Canadian-born artist says. “I’ve never really felt the urge to be a pop star or anything. I think I was always a very kind of introverted person who made music and put it out there. I think I became more aware and accepting of that over the last few years — like, ‘OK, that’s just what I am. I’m not a member. I’m just continuing as a guest.””
Cultural critique aside, there is a simpler and more familiar mission underpinning the latest from Newman’s time-tested collective. Despite the changes and challenges that come with steering the unwieldy ship of a pop institution for more than 20 years, he says Continue as a Guest advances a simple formula that has unwittingly made The New Pornographers a tentpole act in contemporary indie music.
“We don’t know how to aim for a market,” he says with a laugh. “We don’t know how to do anything except sit in the room and put our heads together and go, ‘OK, how can we make a cool song?’ That’s the eternal goal of our band.”
ON THE BILL: The New Pornographers with Wild Pink. 8 p.m. Sunday, April 30, Gothic Theatre, 3263 S. Broadway, Englewood. Tickets here.