The New Pornographers

In the Morse Code of Brake Lights

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A.C. Newman has never been known as a songwriter with a clear and easily defined message; as the idea man behind the New Pornographers, he enjoys creating grand-scale pop constructs with lyrics that are artfully oblique. But on 2019's In the Morse Code of Brake Lights, the man appears to have two particular themes on his mind: love and automobiles. From the opening track "You'll Need a Backseat Driver" to the finale "Leather on the Seat," cars keep popping up in the lyrics of these 11 songs, though motor vehicles serve as metaphors in these stories rather than merely serving as a cool ride in the manner of Chuck Berry or Bruce Springsteen. And as for romance, Newman doesn't have much to say about the apple of his eye, but is instead preoccupied with the notion of love as solace in a difficult time, and how to repair whatever damage you've done your partner. In the Morse Code of Brake Lights has a tone of thematic consistency that isn't always apparent in a New Pornographers album, but with this group, music has always carried more weight than lyrics, and on that level, it's an especially strong effort from an act that's never been short on stylistic ambition. Newman produced the sessions in addition to writing the songs, and the arrangements are grand in scope (especially the numbers with strings), rich with detail but never sounding too top-heavy, and the vocals from the various members (including Newman, Neko Case, Kathryn Calder, Simi Stone, and Joe Seiders) are rich and evocative, both solo and en masse. The New Pornographers have established their wall of indie rock sound over the past two decades to the point that In the Morse Code of Brake Lights doesn't offer a tremendous amount of surprises. That said, if this level of craft has come to be expected, the intelligence, ambition, and wit on display here don't fail to please and impress, and this music portrays the band as the muscle car of indie rock, a powerful vehicle that's also great, impractical fun.

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