Challengers Label: Matador
Forget the old adage that the second album is the hardest. The third and fourth albums are harder, because you can release all kinds of crazy shit on your second album and argue that it is a logical extension of your debut. With the third and fourth albums, though, you’ve already declared which direction you plan to travel. This is good, in that the likelihood that you disappoint any fans still along for the ride is much lower, but it’s bad in that if you do lose them, you’ve quite possibly lost them for good.
Now, take the New Pornographers, who are releasing their fourth album, Challengers. They are very lucky in that even if they lose a bunch of fans, they won’t lose a recording contract because of it, not like a Mariah Carey would (and did). They’re doubly lucky in that the people who like them don’t just like them but love them in a way that few bands will ever know. However, Challengers has one distinct disadvantage in that it has to follow Twin Cinema, which is not only the band’s best record but one of the Best Pop Records of All Time. If some albums inspire people to form their own bands, Twin Cinema is the kind of album that will inspire someone to start a new religion. Heck, “These are the Fables” could start over a dozen new religions by itself.
What this means, of course, is that Challengers is hopelessly screwed. No matter how good it may be, it doesn’t have a chance of holding up against Twin Cinema. The tone is decidedly darker and more understated – it’s tempting to call the album mature or grown-up, but that wrongly suggests that the band’s previous work was immature – and the shift in tempo alone dooms the affair. But resist the urge to throw the towel too soon. It’s actually a fine little pop record. Its only problem is that it’s not Twin Cinema.
Still, “My Rights Versus Yours” and “All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth” are vintage A.C. Newman goodness. Gorgeous harmonies and quirky musical detours, ahoy! Dan Bejar’s three songs don’t measure up to “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras” or “Broken Breads,” but the Pixies-cribbing “Myriad Harbour” holds its own with Newman’s material. The title track is clearly this album’s “Fables,” and Neko Case delivers yet another superb vocal (Neko Case does no wrong, ever). “Adventures in Solitude” is the album’s most ambitious moment, beginning as a piano and acoustic guitar-driven ballad, blossoming into a fiddle-drenched showstopper at the halfway mark that the Pogues would be proud to call their own. However, as beautiful as it is, it can’t touch the hey-la-hey-la majesty of “The Bleeding Heart Show” or the out and out weirdness of “Stacked Crooked.”
It is the rare album that is really good yet breaks your heart at the same time for not being good enough. But what kind of hope did Challengers really have? Had this come before Twin Cinema, people would rave about the album for the delightfully smart and catchy pop record that it is. Instead, it is viewed with Stone Roses’ Second Coming levels of disappointment because it’s following in the footsteps of a church-builder. Expectations are a bitch, man.