As the ringleader of the New Pornographers’ band of merry men and women, Carl “AC” Newman is known for concocting dense, cerebral pop. The Pornos’ hooks might be jubilant, and their harmonies soaring, but their lyrics are sly and slippery, layered with winking references that often set the meaning just beyond a casual listener’s reach.
Newman maintained this playful distance over the course of his first two solo releases, but on Shut Down the Streets, the offbeat power-pop bard addresses the camera. Drawing on the pillowy, honeyed sound of both ’70s yacht rock and early-2000s indie-rock, this album has a wistful, grounded quality in both form and content; it’s the sound of a slightly unsettled person settling down. Though Newman still has moments of nervous side-stepping, he’s noted that these songs were written in the wake of a pair of life-changing events—the death of his mother and the birth of his son—and he’s at his best here when he’s candidly responding to one or both of those things.
The middle of the album contains a stunning three-track suite directed towards his son that begins with the gentle, jangly “There’s Money in New Wave,” a sort of rueful state of the union, arcs through the banjo-laced “Strings,” and falls back into “Hostages,” a wry hymn of gratitude bolstered by Neko Case’s backing vocals. He uses his most affecting songs as bookends: “I’m Not Talking” and “They Should Have Shut Down the Streets” are two clear reflections on coping with loss—the former a constellation of strummed guitar and feathery synths, the latter a stately march—that are frank, emotional, and poetic; the indie-rock answer to Auden’s “Funeral Blues.”
Playlist picks “I’m Not Talking,” “There’s Money in New Wave,” “Strings”
AC Newman plays Lee’s Palace (529 Bloor St. W.) on Oct. 21.