Alongside Douglas Coupland, great sushi, and a breath taking never-ending springtime, The New Pornographers in my mind have always been one of the best things to be spawned from Vancouver. Like the city itself, they are an enigma that are hard to pin down. The music made by this talented collective defies easy labeling. After four albums they continue to thrill and perplex with their ability to craft complex pop masterpieces, the type of songs that have that rare ability to get stuck in your head while at the same time being somewhat indecipherable.
This album continues in this tradition, albeit in a slightly more subdued manner than its predecessors. The opening track "My Rights Versus Yours" starts of with the gentle vocal ramblings from A.C. Newman backed by subtle harmonies from Neko Case, building into a mid tempo number full of images such as "the truth in one free afternoon" and a "new empire in rags", which seems to be snapshots of a relationship that reaches a melting point and is forever altered. Lyrically this is more of a string of imagery than a coherent narrative, and could easily be the quintessential post-modern break-up song.
"The Old Showstoppers" sounds like traditional fare from the band full of the usual multiple vocal layers and a gradual build up. Strangely, the title track "Challengers" could almost pass as one of Neko Case's solo tracks, though there is more vocal restraint here. The moody and slow moving base line and complimentary banjo adds to the somber and dream-like state of this song about two people seemingly having to leave part of their lives behind and become "the challengers of the unknown".
"Myriad Harbour" & "All The Things That Go To Make Heaven & Earth" are more traditional Pornographers fare, with the former literally being a conversation among band members and the later being the type of manic punchy number that would have normally surfaced earlier on their past albums, complete with the type of chirpy backing keyboards that have made some of their past songs so endearing and playful.
"Failsafe" is a catchy and sleepy number complete with "How Soon Is Now" inspired vibrato from start to finish. Admittedly, the mid point track "Unguided" sucks some of the momentum away from the album and lost me a little, and at six and half minutes seems out of place in light of the bands usual flare for short perky bursts of brilliance.
From my vantage point the second last track "Adventures in Solitude" would have also made an appropriate title for the album, with its mellow strings, piano and chorus of "we thought we lost you.. welcome back". In many ways this album is a sort of adventure for the band, perhaps consciously shedding some of their power-pop inklings in favour of more melodic and subtle fare.
This is a forgivable and understandable foray for the band on their fourth outing, they are all credible musicians and artists in their own right and sometimes exercising more restraint is a necessary step. I do have to admit though that what has made the band so appealing to me in the past is their penchant for crafting the type songs that bounce around in your skull and eventually stick there like dense, sweet and sticky cotton candy. Some of those moments are here, though the sugar quota has been reduced slightly, and I suppose that this is necessary at times in order to prevent decay.