Sunday, February 01, 2009

Grown-Up Symphonies to God: A.C. Newman, Get Guilty

If you don't want to hear blather about my life outside the pop-culture-appreciation firmament, feel free to skip to the sixth paragraph or so: I won't be offended.

Sorry so silent for so long. Sure, the 'day job' eroded many of my January evenings and weekends like so much hydrochloric acid to the kisser, but much of the last month also saw the missus and I in an epic drama involving our dog's health.

Disco contracted a major kidney infection in late December, and for a few weeks she hovered closer to checking out than she ever has. Thankfully we brought her back to fighting trim with a lot of lost sleep and funds, aggressive treatment with antibiotics, and our sheer willpower (knock wood). Rita's and my current running gag around the house? Including provisions for care of our happy and insanely-spry near-sixteen-year old dog in each of our respective wills.

I've also been experiencing a bit of a paradigm shift on a personal level lately. I'm fortunate to work at a respected arts organization that I care about, surrounded by creative and committed people who care as much about the art as I do. But for a lot of years I've squelched my own creative impulses and experienced that faint bit of soul-death that comes from defining myself as nothing more than My Job (even if it's, for the most part, a Good Job).

The last few months I've been working on rediscovering that essence rare--you know, creating stuff myself instead of just writing creatively about cool things that other people have created. Of course, I'm still an agonizing perfectionist about what ends up in this here Blog and (yep, I'll be brutally honest here) a bit of a slacker during non-work time, so creating vs. writing about others' creations has sometimes become an either-or proposition.

All of which serves as a rather lengthy preamble to the fact that I love A.C. Newman's new CD Get Guilty so much that I can't NOT write about it.

Newman sings and writes songs for a pretty terrific band named The New Pornographers: The band plays caffeinated, smart, catchy pop that sort of sounds like a college-educated version of the Archies gone new-wave. Here, though, Newman's crafted a record cut from the same aural cloth as The Zombies' Odessey and Oracle or The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. The last Pornographers record, Challengers, reached for some of the horn-and-string-laden craftsmanship displayed here, but it sounded pensive and dour--the product of an unhappy spirit at a crossroads. By contrast, Get Guilty bursts at its seams with joy and breathtaking loveliness.

I've spent hours trying to describe this record here, and the challenge has been frustrating the hell out of me: Capturing its spell with a few snappy sentences seems utterly beyond my verbal grasp. Really good music often defies such compartmentalizing. But describing what I hear and feel, through the prism of my own moods and perceptions, as A.C. Newman's pocket symphony fills my ears? Now that I can swing.

The nerd in me loves the clever and quirky musical turns Newman takes with his Pornographers work, but here he wraps those oddball smarts in sheer gorgeousness--haunting strings, exotic instrumentation, and old-fashioned irresistible harmonies. I'm a total sap for such loveliness if it's served up right, and it is here. It's not just some retro-contrivance, either: Rather than cluttering things up, the orchestration and arrangements lend a timeless and warm quality to some already great pop songs. And amazingly, his orchestral touch never comes at the expense of getting to the point. Newman knows that brevity is the soul of great pop (only one song on Get Guilty exceeds four minutes in length, and even then, it's only by nine seconds), and none of these songs overstays their welcome.

And I love Newman's lyrics here. His verbal style--abstract imagery punctuated by shards of disarming emotional frankness--has never been woven more effectively with his melodies. On the exquisite 'Young Atlantis', he even crafts a song rife with nautical/mythical imagery that doesn't just beat oceanic cliches to death.

Ultimately, though, what I hear on Get Guilty is unbridled and uncontained happiness. The creator of this collection of songs must be in love. Whether it's with a person or the sheer act of making music, I'm not sure which (both, likely). But there's so much joy here that even at the disc's most bittersweet moments, beauty and optimism break through the melancholy like shards of sunlight through cloud cover.

Every song on Get Guilty makes me indescribably happy as I listen to it, from the playfully silly Beatle-y lope of 'Submarines of Stockholm' to the clattering David Bowie-gone-bubblegum glee of "Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer," to the Brian Wilson shimmer of "The Palace at 4am". But my current favorite is the album's majestic closer, 'All of my Days and All of my Days Off'. On it, Newman layers the chorus's one simple, nakedly truthful sentence ("And I give you my days, all my days/and all of my days off") with cascading grand piano notes, beautifully urgent boy-girl harmonies, and a galvanizing sense of purpose: Cumulatively it sounds as luminously, soaringly romantic as anything in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese. Someone who moves me that deeply with three ninutes and 51 seconds of pop music really is creating grown-up symphonies to God.

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