A.C. Newman has always conveyed a kind of brainy troubadourism. The Canadian singer-songwriter’s pining narratives project a wry strain of Americana, one that easily shifts between poetry and intellectualism in the same way his acoustic soundscapes alternate between twangy backwoods folk and coffeehouse indie pop. He is, essentially, the male equivalent of his New Pornographers bandmate and frequent collaborator Neko Case, whose own brand of anecdotal alt-rock closely mirrors Newman’s. It’s a slightly schizophrenic but satisfying sound that was perfected on 2009’s Get Guilty, and aside from a few hiccups, his third album, Shut Down the Streets, continues to spotlight Newman’s talents as a cerebral balladeer.
Case makes a cameo on “Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns,” adding her trademark howl to the kind of ascendant barroom sing-along chorus that so often works its way into Newman’s songs. As “Encyclopedia” and other tracks suggest, Newman’s songwriting isn’t nearly as deliberate or dense as it was on “There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve,” “Thunderbolts,” or the litany of other standouts from Get Guilty. Rather, the songs on Shut Down the Streets are picaresque, and Newman himself is, dare I say it, almost cheery. The visual counterpart is that of a winking storyteller guiding his listeners through a rolling Appalachian landscape, and that capricious, pastoral imagery takes many forms, from the fiddle-kissed Irish folksiness of “Not Talking” to the Turtles-esque baroque that defines “You Had to Be There,” which relies on a couple of squeezeboxes and flutes to deliver its melody.
The album’s light-footed pace occasionally takes a turn toward the banal. The appropriately titled but drifting “Troubadour” largely treads water, its assortment of softly plucked strings aiming for Andrew Bird-style experimental folk, but instead achieving only boring adult contemporary. Ditto for “You Could Get Lost,” a twinkling piece that seems to crawl in a perpetual circle while Newman yawns out some bored vocals. For the most part, though, Shut Down the Streets manages to avoid the ennui nipping at its heels, and in its best moments, reinforces Newman as both a skillful wordsmith and a masterful purveyor of Dylan-esque folk rock.