Music Reviews
In the Morse Code of Brake Lights

The New Pornographers In the Morse Code of Brake Lights

(Concord Records) Rating - 7/10

As we march towards the end of another decade, The New Pornographers may not be on the tip of many tongues when discussions ensue about who have been the most consistent artists over the course of the 21st century. That’s a shame, given that the A.C. Newman led group got their start at the dawn of the new century. And with the release of In The Morse Code of Brake Lights, they have put forth eight remarkably solid albums over the course of that time. With a couple of outstanding ones, in fact. Many bands don’t make it that far to begin with, and most would sadly be in a steady state of creative decline this far in. With co-lead vocalist Neko Case on board from the beginning, the group has, in spite of some protestations to the contrary, enjoyed a steady core. With the addition of Kathryn Calder mid-period, the band put out some of its best work in their last couple of albums, culminating with the power-pop dynamics of Whiteout Conditions.

On Morse Code, the band turns its Canadian eyes southward to assimilate both America’s obsession with the open road and to help shoulder the burden of one of their cousin’s most divisive times under the rule of “a child king." With at least half the songs obliquely referencing automotive affairs (and not those as a result of the tapping of brake lights), Newman also weaves in references to crumbling edifices in Colossus Of Rhodes and One Kind Of Solomon. Those songs are some of the sturdiest here. Case’s turn on Colossus pairs up with Newman’s most naked of vocals on the following, Higher Beams, to form the emotional core of the album. Case’s declaration that “we’ve had break-ins before” references not only Watergate, but also more generally that this too shall pass. Newly minted permanent member Simi Stone prefaces Higher Beams with the emotive pull of the bow before Newman lays down one of the group’s most pointed songs about the high beams that “temporarily blind”.

Though the songs here are sturdy and resilient enough to withstand an administration or two, in some key spots they don’t scale the musical heights of prior efforts. One Kind Of Solomon benefits from a trademark inner dialogue ripe with rhyme, but it doesn’t utilize Calder as effectively to scale the pinnacles and spires of something like Brill Bruisers or even Whiteout’s Juke. Without the frenetic pacing of their earlier works or the vocal gymnastics of their later works, some songs are left as mere mortals from a group noted for routinely producing superheroes. An unfair expectation after twenty years, perhaps, but songs such as Opening Ceremony and Dreamlike And On The Rush come off muted and could have benefited from more use of the players already assembled on the court.

Nonetheless, Newman pens some of the bluntest, if not most pointed, songs of the current era. Ones that are not only tuneful and listenable for the long-term but get in their swipes while assuring they won’t be dated down the line. For that, we are thankful to get songs like The Surprise Knock and the closing Leather On The Seats, which benefits from sterling harmonies and the subtlest of metaphors while also mounting hills that may later become mountains. In spite of their nearest neighbor’s steps backward, if Newman focuses on the towers of song that deal with matters as mundane as red wine and Spanish techno the rest will somehow sort itself out. If In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights isn’t remembered as the peak of The New Pornographers' work, its heart is squarely where it needs to be—and is still head and shoulders above most of the choices we are presented with these days. Electoral or otherwise.