On each successive album, the New Pornographers have become less off-the-cuff and more cerebral. In and of itself, that isn’t a bad thing, but music that ostensibly bears the tag “power-pop” doesn’t work when it’s cloistered and stuffy. On their fifth album, Together, the Pornos finally reach that tipping point between pop that is meticulous in its craft and pop that is overworked and leaden. It’s not a bad record per se, but it’s a disappointment from a band best known for setting their idiosyncratic lyrics to massive hooks and ingratiating melodies.
Opening with a rumbling cello riff and piano power chords that immediately invite comparisons to the solo albums by frontman and chief songwriter A.C. Newman, “Moves” sets the tone for the rest of the album. The individual elements of the song, from that terrific cello part to the staccato delivery of the “oh-oh-oh” hook, all demonstrate the band’s mastery of pop conventions. But those elements don’t really work together: Newman’s lead vocal run is smothered in the mix to the point that it’s inscrutable, while the jaggedness of his phrasing in the song’s verses undercuts what would otherwise be a strong melody. While the band’s sloppiness has always been a major part of their charm, “Moves” and so much of what is ragged about Together sounds calculated and awkward.
The album also surprises for its over-reliance on Neko Case to attempt to elevate some of its weaker material. On earlier records, Case seemed to be given her pick of the best songs, and her lively performances on standout cuts like “Letter from an Occupant,” “The Laws Have Changed,” and “The Bleeding Heart Show” resulted in some of the finest singles of the last decade. But Case sounds positively bored singing the stilted hook of second single “Crash Years”: “Traffic was slow in the crash years.” Her phrasing is completely off-kilter on “My Shepherd,” emphasizing syllables seemingly at random and with her vocal left to drown in reverb. At no point in her rich career has Case had to sing material that isn’t worthy of her phenomenal voice, but that’s precisely what happens here, and she’s done no favors by the heavy-handed production.
Case isn’t alone in being undermined by the record’s sludgy sound. “If You Can’t See My Mirrors,” on which Dan Bejar aims for a laidback ‘70s AM radio vibe, suffocates in all of the reverb and multi-tracking in its chorus. The horn section from the DAP Kings turn up on several tracks, which is something of a waste when considering how deeply buried they are beneath squelchy electric guitars, foregrounded percussion lines, and too-obvious homages to Fleetwood Mac (“Crash Years”) and ELO (“We End Up Together”). The Black Sabbath riff in the melody of “Your Hands (Together)” makes the song an unexpected highlight of the set, in that it’s one of the only tracks on which the heaviness of the production is actually in service to the song.
As the leadoff single, “Hands” is also notable as one of the album’s only moments of real exuberance, when all of the participants appear to be working toward a common goal. With so much bulk to the record and with so many influences at play, Together buckles under the sheer volume of collaborators. Since the Pornos are already something of an indie-rock supergroup, it raises the question of how many additional artists they need to bring into the fold. In addition to the DAP Kings, Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, and Beirut’s Zach Condon are also credited here. There’s quite a bit of work involved in bringing so many points of view and instruments together, and that’s precisely the problem with Together. The New Pornographers are at their best when they make all of their pop know-how seem effortless.