Time, After Time
Rock has autism. It loves moments but it hates time. Dreaming it can carve out a utopian present, it imagines eternal innocence, but one poised on cusp of ambivalence--praying that the space between "I just turned 22" and "I was wondering what to do" can be as wide as the wasteland between the age where you eat paste and the one where you become it. It's a sacred space but an impossible one. Early rockers responded by cranking out great works with automatic urgency, trying to outpace history. The Byrds wrote about 400 insanely awesome songs before laying down their all-growed-up 'Nam reckoning "Draft Morning" at the ripe age of about 20. CCR recorded roughly eight albums during one moonshine- and mustache-soaked week in 1968. The Beatles went so far as to reverse the aging process altogether, beginning as utterly competent professional entertainers who wore suits and got along and knew how to efficiently structure a song, and then winding up a bunch of bitchy little crybabies who couldn't even bathe themselves. (The reason John Lennon's "Mother" has that neat warm yet smothered vibe is 'cuz he was actually singing it in the womb.).
But the wheel in the sky keeps on turnin', the big white boat keeps on churnin'. When the disestablishmentarianists of the '60s started sucking in the '70s, they developed the Boomer Negotiation: If you can't transcend time, suspend it, which is why they've been happily Turtle Waxin' their Jermaine Jackson to "Takin' Care of Business" 50 times daily since 1973. Modern hipsters didn't inherent their forebears' pretensions to world-remaking artistic achievement and/or its attendant hokum, but they learned to hold off letting go of that teens part of your 20s as if those years were a downed six-pack and it was 30 miles to the next rest stop. At 35, Carl "AC" Newman falls somewhere in the foothills of the generational Himalayas that separate BTO and B2K, and he's appropriately preoccupied with the wan ravages of that capricious slutzilla Father Time. The name of his really colossally super new record, The Slow Wonder (Matador), evokes late-breaking epiphanies yanked from the maw of fraying possibility. One song even has the word time right in the title, which should be all the evidence I need to earn this week's keep. But since I'm feeling all lawyerly, I'll further my point by noting that Newman appears in the press photo sleeping on his couch with a self-help book unread on his lap, a reference to the classic opposition between wasting one's life with art-aesthetic putzing and embracing prescribed achievement.
Newmorator's other band--the much beloved New Pornographers, for whom he writes all the good songs, and sings 'em too--has the feel of a group of thirtysomething rock students/itinerant tinkerers who might have tinkered away in random obscurity, holding off the inevitable collision between art and life. But in getting together to record 2000's from-nowhere indie-smash Mass Romantic and its 2003 follow-up Electric Version, Newman, singer Neko Case, and co-songwriter Dan Bejar were assumed into a whole new strata of small-stakes demi-celebrity. Of course, those records actually gestated for years, probably even reaching back to when Newman fronted the overlooked Sup Pop act Zumpano. But the music itself coursed with the language and logic of the underdog peripeteia at the last-second buzzer: "Visualize success!" declaims one not entirely ironic entreaty. They clutter their songs with lines about streetlight dawns, breaking free despite waves of debris, blown speakers that relinquish the most beautiful sound, comeback kids, reinvented old AM poop, magic hour denouement, and detritus made holy. It's the wisest and sweetest music currently being poured forth from the souls of white folks, and these white folks even go the extra mile of being so white they're actually Canadian. And speaking of being Canadian, my friend Chauncey recently relayed a little bit of not-unrelated wisdom from former L.A. Kings coach/hoser greaseball Barry Melrose on the surest way to sip from the Stanley Cup: "Number one: muck up in the corners. Number two: get a goalie on a hot streak. And number three: MUCK IT UP IN THE CORNERS!!"
On The Slow Wonder, Newman doesn't exactly muck up the corners so much as brighten them. He's a crafthead who leaves no melodic or structural possibility unputtered with. His white studies degree was primarily done in the strange alchemy that arises when ELO, 10 CC, pub-rock, the Sweet, the Raspberries, et al. are broken down into their chemical components and rebuilt as cosmic life preservers and charm bracelets around the alabaster ankles of Hermes and his lesser kin. And speaking of Hermes, former City Pages Senior Arts and Music Vishnu Will Hermes once mentioned how the need for direct lyrical meaning is basically a hazard to the linguistic possibilities of pop music. (I can't remember the exact quote, but it was something like, "Ya know, direct lyrical meaning is basically a hazard to the linguistic possibilities of pop music--now go get me a sandwich, bitch.") I've never laid turkey upon whole wheat at the behest of Carl Newman, but he similarly follows The Will Hermes Principle by evoking rather than articulating, his realizations sweet but slow in the coming, cross-wiring hermetic allusions and the mythical pomp of rock epiphany.
"Miracle Drug," with its neat turn-around riff and martial beat, suggests nodding off on a cure-all for "the perilous slide into time," stopping when it doesn't quite work to declaim, "Why all the history?" That line sounds like a plea against lost youth but is really merely a demand to know why there's so much history. 'Cuz, as anyone who's ever had cable will tell you, there's apparently quite a bit. Newman seems like a reader, the kind of guy who can probably tell you more about, say, Teapot Dome than any Canadian indie-rocker ought to care to. His lyrics forge delectable little imagistic gewgaws from the discarded calling cards of our myriad unkempt pasts:'20s ad lingo, small-town campaign slogans, want ads, self-actualization rope-a-dope, Babbit-y pick-ya-ups (as if these dead languages, like human beings, are merely another negative externality of capitalist cash-cropping). He mixes these allusions with his own lexicon of random bullshit (last-call salvos, love-letter outtakes, kiss-offs to missed rides and come-ons to young ones). One more nobody yapping, "Hey, I'm me" in poetry against the laughing weight of money's dead riddles.
The lolling "Drink to Me, Babe, Then," turns post-game lingo into a burnt lover's consolation prize--"We don't know what the scores don't show"--and turns on a wistful whistle refrain that emboldens its theme of generosity in the face of romantic resignation. "The Battle for Straight Time" is a bit direr, mustering an army of multi-tracked Newmans to pray up a "revolution left to chance" in spite of fate's stolid march. "Come Crash" has a title that riffs on the tale of a car wreck that leads to a near-tryst that nearly ruins a longtime friendship before cooler heads prevail: "We should be dead/We should be stars and perfect tens/And that's just three off the top of my head." But instead of having sex, they just sleep in the same room ("Come crash on my floor"), suspended between risk and reward, attrition and contrition. Like the rest of this wonderful record and the history of all our minor hells. An endless slide into an endless slide into one more round when the lights go up.
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