Mint Records, 2000
REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/25/2003
In the liner notes of Mass Romantic, the first full-length album by Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers, the band acknowledged that the album was recorded over an extended period of time, in creative bursts. Twelve creative bursts, to be precise.
Thanks to the exposure of Neko Case (still basically ignored by mainstream, but worshipped by music geeks), The New Pornographers have been getting attention by mainstream music media. There's nothing particularly new about Mass Romantic; most of the music is reminiscent of 80s alterna-power pop bands like The Replacements and the Cars, or 90s Brit-pop. Even if originality isn't the band's strongest suit, their energy and tight execution more than makes up for the lack of new ideas.
The lyrics of Mass Romantic were written by Dan Bejar and Carl Newman. Both Bejar and Newman have a keen knack for writing depressing lyrics (see "Execution Day" or "Letter From an Occupant") and surrounding them with candy-coated pop arrangements. Call it martyr pop. The best example of this is "The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism," a song that will defy you to want to go out and invest in a pogo stick. The song is deceptively simple and happy-sounding until you hear Newman's scream "Salvation, holdout central" for about a dozen times. It's an anthem that deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as Oasis' "Cigarettes and Alcohol" for "best song about debauchery in the past 20 years."
Some songs are a tad too familiar for their own good. "The Body Says No" is supposed to be sly and witty, but sounds precociously close to Styx. The lyrics to "Mystery Hours" and "The Mary Martin Show" seem to be too intelligent for their own good and sometimes, when the band veers away from the discipline pop structure, they buckle under their own ambitions.
Even with some tarnished songs, Mass Romantic more than merits a purchase. Like Soundgarden, the New Pornographers realized that the key to making an old formula sound fresh is not by trying to wildly reinvent genres, but to focus on three elements to making great tunes: dynamics, dynamics, dynamics. Even if you have heard the type of music that the Pornographers have played, it's nearly impossible to resist the urge to air-drum during the rousing climax of "To Wild Homes."
Fans of Neko Case's solo work may be in for a shock at the first listen of Mass Romantic. With the exception of "Letter From an Occupant," her vocals basically are reserved for background duties. Be patient though -- after a few listens, the music of Mass Romantic is so infectious, you won't care if she isn't taking center stage.