As Beats International pointed out back in 1991, people always talk about reputation. So how does one of the most highly-regarded songwriters in the business go about getting some heavy, deeply personal baggage off their chest without disappointing a loyal fan-base expecting another helping of the upbeat pure pop they have become known for? For Carl “A.C.” Newman, the Vancouver-born tunesmith and leader of indie “supergroup” the New Pornographers, the answer would appear to be “effortlessly”: on Shut Down The Streets, his third solo long-player, Newman eases off the gas to tackle two of the most important and humbling events in any man’s life – the birth of his first child and the death of his mother – with his trademark lyrical wit and wisdom. Influenced by ’70s folk-rockers like Gerry Rafferty and Gordon Lightfoot (as well as old touchstones like Brian Wilson and Burt Bacharach), it’s a more downtempo collection than we’re used to, but no less inventive; decorated with lush synths, understated string and woodwinds and harmony vocals from NPs colleague Neko Case, the elegantly peppy arrangements and everyman melodies paint Newman as the McCartney to fellow Pornographer (and Destroyer) Dan Bejar’s Lennon. As usual, lyrics combine cryptic wordplay with more universal sentiment, but on songs like “You Could Get Lost Out Here” (inspired by bucolic family life in Woodstock, NY), “Strings” and “Hostages” (both about newborn son Stellan) they are more specific; “Strings” revolves around the age-old premise of making deals with a higher power in return for safe delivery whilst the latter is an unabashedly joyous celebration of this precious new life. Swinging from one extreme to the other, though, it’s the closing title track that is the most personal. Written following his mother’s funeral, it’s Newman’s own “Stop All The Clocks” moment, one that shares with the W.H. Auden poem the notion that one person’s grief can feel like the biggest, most important thing in the world: “They should have shut down all the streets/ Presidents and kings should have been there/ Not a single empty seat/ All the schools closed and the roads we drove down/ All lined with people cap in hand and crying”. Genuinely moving without being mawkish, it’s the clear highlight of a remarkable record that sees Newman coming through a period of great change older and wiser, stronger and with reputation intact.
Shut Down The Streets is out October 8 via Fire Records in the UK and Matador/ Last Gang in the U.S.; listen to “Encyclopedia Of Classic Takedowns” below and hear the whole album now at the Huffington Post.