When you think about A.C. Newman’s quirky indie-pop, what immediately comes to mind? Odds are, it’s a melody. Whether on his own or with his more famous “supergroup” project, The New Pornographers, Newman has, over the past decade, developed into one of his generation’s most inventive songwriters, twisting tongue-tied poetry around hooks so strong, you need to pull an Eternal Sunshine to forget them.
But the whole “tongue-tied poetry” thing has a way of narrowing your audience. Newman’s lyrics are intoxicating—but they can also leave you feeling a little drunk. For some, it’s a part of his singular charm; for others, it’s a surrealist roadblock that prevents an emotional connection.
Inspired by the death of his mother and the birth of a new son, Newman’s third solo album, Shut Down the Streets, is the most direct, heartfelt item in his catalog, both lyrically and sonically. But it’s far from the “warped, confessional ‘70s singer/songwriter album” Newman’s played off in recent interviews: Shut Down the Streets is as melodic and musically rich as anything he’s composed since Twin Cinema, with trusted Porno Neko Case adding her vibrant harmonies over layers of synth, acoustic guitars and woodwinds. “I’m Not Talking” is a gently uplifting, Challengers-styled ballad, with a wall of harmonies offset by a moaning clarinet; “You Could Get Lost Out Here” rides a trademark circular Newman chord progression that seems to neither begin nor end, blending steel-guitar lines, bubbling synths and a wordless, cooed chorus. The album rarely “rocks” (There is no “Sing Me Spanish Techno” here, no “Electric Version”), but even at its quietest, Shut Down the Streets is far too intricate to be categorized a “singer/songwriter” affair.
Newman has admitted feeling skeptical about the simplicity of his new lyrics. But his words have never resonated at such high frequencies. “There’s Money in New Wave” is still playful in its imagery, but its themes (reflecting on parenthood and his new son’s future life) are universal: “I want to tell you / that there’s money in new wave,” he sings over psychedelic madrigal acoustics, “that I hope you know I love you.” Newman’s mantra on the bass-driven pulse of “Strings” couldn’t be simpler: “I can do things for you.”
Meanwhile, the title track is a heartbreaking yet hopeful rumination on the passing of Newman’s mother. “They should have shut down all the streets / Presidents and kings should have been there,” he sings in falsetto over acoustic strums and clarinet counterpoint, “With not a single empty seat, all the schools closed and the roads we drove down / all lined with people, cap-in-hand and crying.”
By opening up, by giving a glimpse into the heart behind those heart-stopping melodies, Newman’s written his best songs in nearly a decade.