By any kind of reasonable logic, pop music as we know it should be dead by now. With everything that has come since – from punk to disco to hip hop to house to EDM – the three minute verse-chorus-verse pop song should really have been made redundant long ago and continue to exist only as some kind of time-capsule curio, like ragtime or delta blues; but somehow, like a cockroach in the wake of a nuclear war, it endures. King amongst insects (a compliment, assuredly) is Carl “AC” Newman, the Canadian singer-songwriter whose work over the last fifteen years as both a solo artist and leader of “indie supergroup” The New Pornographers has been a gentle but constant reminder of the peculiar, perennial power of the perfect pop song, and on Brill Bruisers, the sixth studio album from the multi-vocalist collective that also includes Neko Case, Kathryn Calder and Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, his efforts feel more purposeful than ever. Whereas in the past Newman has sometimes appeared – like McCartney or Brian Wilson before him – to stumble on clever, catchy tunes almost by accident, these are unabashed attempts at producing “hits”, a modern alt-rock take on the production line approach taken by the song-writing teams (see Goffin & King, Mann & Weill, Bacharach & David) who worked out of New York’s famous Brill Building in the ’60s; and without exception these songs are just the kind of knockouts the album title would suggest, the singer and bassist/ co-producer John Collins utilising a newly discovered arsenal of synths and sequencers to create “faster, sparklier” numbers that hark back to a time when bands like ELO, ABBA and Blondie dominated the singles charts and made innovative, critically acclaimed long-players too. Of course, whilst Newman masterminded much of Bruisers, his leading ladies never let the listener forget it’s a group effort, peppering the title track with fanfares of multi-tracked “doo-wah-doo”s and coating the wall-of-sound productions throughout with thick layers of sugary harmonies, as well as taking turns handling lead vocal duties: Case (still smouldering following last year’s career-best The Worse Things Get… LP) oozes glassy Shangri-Las sass on “Champions Of Red Wine” and comes out swinging like a woman scorned on “Marching Orders”, whilst Calder coos sweetly on “Drug Deal Of The Heart” and her duet with Bejar “Born With A Sound”, showing she’s more than capable of holding her own alongside her more high-profile bandmates. Speaking of Bejar, it’s the Destroyer main man who – somewhat predictably – steals the show with said duet and a further pair of absolute aces, “War On The East Coast” and “Spyder”; the first a headlong motorik rush that proves the basic ingredients for a great pop song – a catchy hook and a few rhymes repeated over and over – remain the same whether the subject matter is “boy meets girl” or cities falling into the ocean, the other a short, shimmering slow-burner that culminates in a glitter cannon shower of euphoric, harmonica-drenched noise. Typically, Bejar’s contributions – brilliant as they are – feel like he decided to spend the majority of the sessions outside the studio, smoking and drinking by himself, laying down his takes only when forced to come to come in to grab another bottle of wine, but despite his apparent reluctance to attend you just know that grouchy ol’ cousin Dan would never actually miss one of these grand get-togethers. Because the Pornographers have always been more of a (dysfunctional) family unit than a conventional band, leading their own separate lives and convening once every few years to catch up on all the news and gossip, and whilst there have been some tough times (Newman and Case both lost loved ones) during the period since 2010’s Together there have also been babies, milestone birthdays and the kind of critical acclaim (for The Worse Things Get…, Newman’s Shut Down The Streets and, most notably, Destroyer’s masterful Kaputt) that many artists can only dream of; cause indeed for celebration, and Bruisers‘ brilliant, buoyant pop songs make for the perfect soundtrack.
Brill Bruisers is out now through Matador Records; listen to “War On The East Coast” below.