Sound — 8
Being a collective of prominent musicians in Canada's music scene like Carl Newman, Neko Case, Dan Bejar and Kathryn Calder, The New Pornographers can be considered the musician equivalent of the DC comics superhero group The Justice League. Starting at the turn of the millennium, the band would quickly grab attention with their bright-eyed sound that appealed to vintage power pop combined with contemporary indie rock, in their early albums "Mass Romantic," "Electric Version," and the massively-acclaimed "Twin Cinema." However, The New Pornographers would take a substantial turn in the disposition of their sound in their later albums, "Challengers" and "Together," appealing to a more downbeat, acoustic-driven, introspective sound. Though this different musical path wasn't met with widespread abhorrence, "Challengers" and "Together" would blue-ball the original fanbase that longed for more of The New Pornographers' positive energy (not to mention that the forlorn demeanor of their last two albums would unfortunately pale in comparison to the other large-outfit, forlorn Canadian indie rockers, Arcade Fire). Along with the early fans having trouble getting on board with the later albums, many were also assuming The New Pornographers would simply phase out due to the increasing solo success of Newman, Case and Bejar (much like how many other supergroups built of high-profile musicians are destined to disband, i.e. Them Crooked Vultures and Atoms For Peace). But after four silent years since "Together," The New Pornographers would spontaneously break that silence with their sixth studio album, "Brill Bruisers."
With the album cover being a colorfully fluorescent cursive font of the album title over the stark name of the band, The New Pornographers implore you to judge the book by its cover - specifically, that "Brill Bruisers" will be much happier-sounding than what the band's music has been defined as in recent years; and with the titular opening track waving the banner of the band's 21st-century power pop style high, it takes less than three minutes to realize the cover isn't lying. As the album continues, the most noticeable characteristic of "Brill Bruisers" is its newfound fascination for electronica-oriented sounds. Glimmering synths are doled throughout the album to establish a whimsical temperament, most notably in "Champions of Red Wine," "Marching Order," "Dancehall Domine," "War on the East Coast" and "Hi-Rise," and "Backstairs" utilizes a vocoder, evoking a Daft Punk influence that perhaps no one would have seen coming from The New Pornographers. The album hits its peak electronica with "Spidyr," which, originally, was a song Bejar made with his experimental side-project Swan Lake, and while it's dominated with synths, it also contains some bluesy harmonica solos that end up being the only darkening cloud in the album's cheerful, sunny sky.
Aside from the synth showcase, the indie rock elements are also stronger this time around than they've been since "Twin Cinema." The guitars show their strength in "War on the East Coast," "Dancehall Domine," "You Tell Me Where," the short-but-sweet "Another Drug Deal of the Heart," and even flash some punk-inspired fangs in "Born With a Sound," which, to the listeners that weren't pleased with the demure in sound of the last couple of New Pornographers albums, should satisfy. Another big improvement shown in "Brill Bruisers" is the teamwork in the vocal department. With The New Pornographers being stocked with two lead male vocalists and two lead female vocalists, their albums usually divvied up into tracks by each being the dominant singer of their respective tracks. And though those cases can still be found in this album - like "Champions of Red Wine" being dominated by Case and "War on the East Coast" being dominated by Bejar - the four vocalists are shown intertwining and harmonizing with each other often throughout "Brill Bruisers," and in songs like "Brill Bruisers," "Fantasy Fool," "Backstairs," "Hi-Rise" and "You Tell Me Where," you hear the vocalists band together to create a Voltron-esque vocal force.
Lyrics — 7
When it comes to lyrics, The New Pornographers have never been able to focus on one thing, and the lyrics in "Brill Bruisers" cover numerous narratives in different ways, and the allocation of vocalists helps drive those narratives well. Bejar's distinctness has him singing about the heavy stuff, like apocalyptic dreams in "War on the East Coast" and verses about seeing death in "Born With a Sound"; Case's contributions on complicated love are destined for quoting (like "Way undercover, I am not your love song" in "Champions of Red Wine" and "what the heart can't imagine, we'll trust" in "Marching Orders"); and Newman leaps through rhyme hoops like an eager show dog in "Brill Bruisers" and "Dancehall Domine" to amplify the power pop catchiness. But amongst the seemingly scatterbrained subject matter, the most poignant theme in "Brill Bruisers" is the band's self-awareness and camaraderie after all these years. Newman's first line in "Wide Eyes" ("I swear I see my former glory still burning/ It had every intent of returning") is the most direct he gets about addressing The New Pornographers' trip back to the more cheerful side of things, and the final track "You Tell Me Where" can easily be seen as an ode to the band's willingness to come together despite their own solo successes.
Overall Impression — 7
Newman has stated that his intentions for a sixth New Pornographers album would be a return to happiness, and "Brill Bruisers" certainly accomplishes that. But to the original fans that equate the happy New Pornographers sound with the band's early material, "Brill Bruisers" doesn't provide exactly that, and nor should it. As much as listeners like to argue about whether "Mass Creation," "Electric Version" or "Twin Cinema" was The New Pornographers' golden moment, a complete retracing of those early albums would make "Brill Bruisers" a cheap revamping of past times at its core. Instead, "Brill Bruisers" takes the high-spirited ethos of The New Pornographers' early work but delivers it in a new, synth-filled way. "Brill Bruisers" isn't flawless, but it's a solid turning to a new chapter for The New Pornographers discography, and seeing them try new things is just as important as seeing them be happy in their music again.