Given that their sloppiness has been a significant source of their charm, for The New Pornographers to sound as much like a for-reals band as they do on Challengers is a bit off-putting on first listen. Not that the octet shouldn’t have learned how to function as a band now that they’re on their fourth proper album, but the lo-fi classics of Mass Romantic and Electric Version didn’t exactly position The New Pornographers as likely candidates to break out a full string section (on “All the Old Showstoppers”) or a French horn (on opener and first single “My Rights Versus Yours”). If nothing else, and it’s neither a good nor a bad thing necessarily, these flourishes make Challengers the first of The New Pornographers’ outings not to sound like an A.C. Newman solo album with occasional guest vocals from Neko Case. And the album finds a comfortable place in a year that has seen high-profile indie-pop acts looking to ‘70s-era AOR for inspiration with decidedly mixed results. Fortunately, Challengers reveals itself to be a slow-burning success of a record, more akin to Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky than to Rilo Kiley’s divisive Under the Blacklight.
Newman’s gifts for melody and for deceptively complex arrangements are as sharp as ever: “Mutiny, I Promise You,” in particular, impresses for its tricky metrical structure, and the harmonies between Newman and Case on “All the Old Showstoppers” are perhaps their best ever. But the band’s generally peerless brand of power-pop is tempered here by mellower instrumentation—as in the alt-country leaning title track and the excellent tremolo guitar that drives standout “Failsafe,” which finds Newman’s niece Kathryn Calder making good on her first lead vocal turn—and the more languid pace of the album’s latter half. Dan Bejar’s contributions are also more conspicuous than on earlier albums, his “Entering White Cecilia” being easily the most sexually-charged song here, and with the chorale chants of his “Myriad Harbor” standing as perhaps the greatest—and most successful—departure from the group’s signature style. If not instantly gratifying enough to rank as The New Pornographers’ best album, Challengers is still their most diverse collection, one that speaks to the real breadth of its core members’ skill with all manners of pop styles and that proves that they’re capable of producing more than just guilty pleasures.