There are songwriters that can turn a three-minute pop song into a work of art. With a simple chord change, they catalyze their joy and agony into catchy, timeless hooks that captivate and endear us all to their sense of melody. These are the John Lennons, Alex Chiltons, Ray Davies, Brian Wilsons and Elliott Smiths. But there’s another name that should be added to the list of the songwriting elite — A.C. Newman.
Newman, better known as Carl Newman of the New Pornographers, has created the perfect pop album with his debut solo release, The Slow Wonder. Newman doesn’t skimp on hooks, handclaps or harmonies on this 30 minute collection. Every song is irresistible, exploring different aspects of pop songwriting. The album goes from a rocker to a ballad to the in-between, offering no two songs that sound alike. Yet Newman’s style is very distinctive. It’s a strange paradox that’s better heard than described, but this is my job, so I might as well give it a shot.
“Miracle Drug” opens the album with bouncy drum fills and a simple, distorted guitar riff. At two and a half minutes, it would have been hit during the British Invasion of the sixties, but Newman, having been born in Canada a few years later, obviously missed that boat.
“Drink to Me Babe, Then” tones it down with an acoustic melody before throwing in some slide work during the chorus. “On The Table” is the most New Pornographers-sounding song on the album, with backup singer Sara Wheeler doing her best Neko Case impersonation. Though every song is a standout, “The Battle for Straight Time” might be the best song on the album. It’s hypnotic and infectious, but doesn’t rely on a catchy chorus to deliver the goods.
Newman’s songwriting becomes more unusual as the album nears the end. Trumpet solos add flair to the dreamy “Come Crash” and the graceful “Cloud Prayer.” A cello riff and a single, repeated piano chord drive “Town Halo.” It’s so simple and rockin’ that you don’t even notice that there aren’t any guitars in the song. The record ends with “35 in the Shade,” another piano-centric song that rolls upon a tom-heavy beat.
Everything on The Slow Wonder is simple and to the point, without being bogged down by clichés. Newman never gets too dramatic or precious, always maintaining a healthy level of fun and simplicity.
This may be Newman’s Pet Sounds. It may be his Revolver. But twenty years from now, people will be using The Slow Wonder as a reference point for great albums to come.