Brian Eno once surmised that most pop songs don’t have backing vocals, but most hit songs do. People don’t want to hear soliloquies — they want to hear a conversation, or imagine themselves as part of one. (When you’re playing “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the car, do you sing along with Freddie Mercury? No, everybody chants “Scaramouche! Scaramouche!”) The New Pornographers’ third album, Twin Cinema, is a giddy all-night conversation: The Vancouver power-pop band’s seven members (and guests) jump in on each other’s lines, trade off phrases, unite for chorales. Some of them even dominate the discussion, but rarely for more than a few moments, and their phalanx-of-sound instrumentation runs on the same kind of glorious cross talk.
There’s a nifty kind of egolessness about the NPs: They’re team players in a way that few other bands are right now, and they’d throw themselves on a grenade if it’d get the rest of the crew to the next hook faster. Carl Newman is the captain rather than the star, a pop wonk with a sweet tooth; he writes and sings about half of Twin Cinema. But he’s happy to cede the spotlight to Neko Case, a solo alt-country singer by day and Pornographer by night, who finds the emotion in Newman’s cryptic words. She’s also the one member of the band who can turn on the star presence when she needs to, and she rips into his ballad “These Are the Fables” like a heartbroken Loretta Lynn. Meanwhile, Dan Bejar (also leader of the eccentric rock band Destroyer) balances Newman’s confectionary constructions nicely; he shows up to write and sing three testy, misanthropic songs, then disappears again. Sometimes it seems like a lucky accident that all of these people are in the same group.
Newman is a singing encyclopedia of power pop. He has identified, cultured, and cloned the most buoyant elements of his favorite Squeeze, Raspberries, Supertramp, and Sparks records, and he’s pretty pathological about making sure there’s something unpredictable and catchy happening in a New Pornographers song every couple of seconds — a stereo flurry of ooohs, an extra beat or two bubbling up unexpectedly. His arrangements for Bejar’s songs, especially the freaky rant “Broken Breads,” organize what appear to be incredibly gangly demos into Ziggy Stardust stomps.
Every perfect pop single has its flip side, though. Twin Cinema‘s is that Newman and Bejar aren’t willing to risk cheesiness or obviousness, so their lyrics almost never tell more than the splinters of a story or even evoke a coherent mood. (What are “The Jessica Numbers”? You’re not something personal here and there (“Two sips from the cup of human kindness and I’m shit-faced,” Newman admits in “Use It”), and occasionally he’ll scare up a group of related images, like the movie-talk phrases (“home theaters,” “dust in the light,” “torn seats”) that populate the album’s title song, along with an out-of-nowhere line about “16th and Valencia.” There is a cinema at that intersection in San Francisco — but you’d have to know that to understand the reference.
As juicy as the NPs’ conversation sounds, its substance is closed off, so you have to give it your own meaning. When their songs have a clear reference point, it’s usually the cultural apparatus of popular music. Sometimes that results in smart ideas, like “Falling Through Your Clothes,” sung in the clipped, looping cadence of a skipping vinyl record; sometimes the results are just baffling, like the chorus that goes, “The hourglass fills with sand/ If only to punish you for listening too long to one song / Sing me Spanish techno.” ¿Que? Naturally, that line is married to a melody that leaps and somersaults like a champion diver, and it’s surrounded by jitterbugging tambourines, spaghetti-western lead guitar, and cool, smooth harmonies. If you didn’t speak English, you’d swear it was the greatest song about summer beach parties ever.
And maybe it is.