How Challengers became The New Pornographers’ most atypical—and best—album

How Challengers became The New Pornographers’ most atypical—and best—album

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Challengers takes place not amid the destruction of a relationship, but its diaspora. So many artists have recorded albums about the enmity and acrimony of lovers breaking apart, of the last few connecting threads fraying and finally snapping. Challengers is an album about all those months later, wide awake at night, thinking about her smile; or the momentary hesitation when you find one of his things, while cleaning and it still carries his scent. It’s an album about the memories that come flying back when that scent is breathed in.

At the time of its release in 2007, Challengers was greeted with respectful, but slightly puzzled reviews. It was treated almost as if the band that recorded it, Canadian power-pop collective The New Pornographers, was on autopilot, coasting after the success of its first three albums. Those first three albums—Mass Romantic, Electric Version, and Twin Cinema—are all terrific, as is the group’s fifth, 2010’s Together. But Challengers might be the band’s best effort, and certainly its most cohesive as an album. The New Pornographers had always maintained a carefully balanced ratio of uptempo power-pop sing-alongs to more contemplative ballads, but the group was careful to keep that ratio skewed in favor of the poppier numbers. Challengers flips that ratio, emphasizing a contemplation and melancholy always present in the group’s work, but rarely more pronounced than it was in songs like the title track, “My Rights Versus Yours,” or “Adventures In Solitude.”

Challengers isn’t quite a concept album. It doesn’t follow the same characters or tell a cohesive story or even track a specific theme. What it does is keep circling back to the idea of long-parted lovers reconnecting or talking themselves through pushing past the pain they feel over that breakup, which is now far enough in the past as to make anyone hung up on it feel a little embarrassed. Only one song—opening track “My Rights Versus Yours”—seems to be written from the point of view of two people who’ve just completed an exhausting fight, one that seems doomed to end the relationship. The song’s refrain, after all, is “a new empire in rags.” It also picks up a lyrical motif that will wind throughout the album: sentences beginning with “we were.” Here, it’s lead singer A.C. Newman’s mention in the first few lyrics of the song: “Remember, we were the volunteers.” We were. But we aren’t anymore.

Not every song on the album is about long-lost lovers thinking back over what was devoured in the angry end. Plus, the group’s lyrics—though more straightforward on Challengers than on any of its other albums—are always open to a myriad of interpretations, written in a manner that suggests emotions and images more than a narrative. It can occasionally seem as if chief songwriters Newman and Dan Bejar are trying to put in words that sound right in the midst of everything else, rather than coming up with anything concrete. In this sense, the group’s lyrics are more impressionistic: the hint of the thing, the impression it leaves behind in the sand, rather than the thing itself. But this approach is well suited to Challengers, which traffics in faded memories and half-dreamed conversations that maybe didn’t happen, much as one’s brain might have wished they did.

It’s also important to note that not every song on Challengers is a yearning midtempo ballad. A lot of them are—and more of them than on any other New Pornographers album—but the album also has plenty of uptempo songs that are more “fun” on the surface. These include second track “All The Old Showstoppers,” “All The Things That Go To Make Heaven And Earth,” and what might be the album’s best number in Bejar’s ode to being young and free in New York, “Myriad Harbor.” Yet even many of these numbers, particularly “Harbor,” are pointedly written in the past tense. Even when it’s not about things lost in a breakup, Challengers is about things that have fallen away and times that can’t be returned to. It’s a bittersweet tour through tombs of might-have-beens.

The not-so-secret weapon of The New Pornographers has always been the tremendous voice of Neko Case, the sort of voice that can be unleashed onto any song to take it into the stratosphere. The group has always used Case sparingly, perhaps understanding that the raw power of her voice is best used in moments when a song needs to hit the gas pedal (or start out with it floored), but Challengers uses her more sparingly than any other album. Indeed, many of the album’s female vocal parts are sung by Kathryn Calder, who made this her first album as a permanent member of the band. (Calder pops up a few times on Twin Cinema but is much more prominent here.) Creatively, this works astoundingly well, as Case is primarily saved for two numbers: the title track and “Go Places.” It’s “Go Places” that’s primarily the Case show (“Challengers” is a duet with Newman), but unlike previous albums, where Case-led songs would turn into competitions between her titanic alto and everything the band’s instrumentation could throw at her, “Go Places” is more wistful and melancholic. It also marks a shift in the album’s tone, from regret over what was to hope over what could be. Again, verb tenses prove key, shifting from the past to the subjunctive, from things that were and cannot be changed to things that could still happen.

Compare that with the song where Calder features most prominently, the album’s centerpiece, “Unguided,” which comes just two tracks before “Go Places.” At just over six minutes long, the track is a swirling trip through, simultaneously, a man despondent at a world post-breakup and the place that man was in when his relationship ended. It features—in the same bridge, no less—that guy trying to psych himself up for whatever’s coming next and ruefully thinking about how he’s darn lucky to be in a relationship. It captures perfectly all of the conflicted emotions and desires both those in love and those who are single weigh against each other, making it a particularly strong song for the Valentine’s Day season. And when the song bottoms out in Calder’s almost-whisper of “And why wait for the weakened state / To lie next to the weaker sex?” the whole album flips around to considering its “protagonist’s” self-pity not as justified but as ultimately harmful and self-defeating. It’s a shrewd piece of work.

The album builds from “Go Places” toward a conclusion that approaches something like hopefulness. Penultimate track “Adventures In Solitude” suggests the long, post-depressive process of re-entry into a world of hanging out with friends and pretending to have a good time so hard that one eventually just starts having a good time. “We thought we lost you / It will all come back,” sings the song’s chorus of almost haunting well-wishers, and the album’s final word goes to Bejar’s “The Spirit Of Giving,” set, appropriately, somewhere in the holiday season, a time of gray and snow and hopelessness, but also of rebirth, connection, and new possibility. Bejar’s vocals trend toward sneering disgust and regret, but the backing chorus ends the song and album on an endless chant of “All I wanted was an answer to the secret.” And so it is with everyone who keeps getting back up after being knocked down, hoping the next try offers a solution.

Nothing that The New Pornographers tried on Challengers was exactly unprecedented. Nearly every band that sticks together long enough has a breakup album, and it’s not like the past tense is an unusual way to write lyrics to a song. But the combination of all of these elements created something unique within the group’s discography, something akin to, say, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, where an artist known for one thing decides to emphasize something that obviously interests them but hasn’t been played up in the past, just to see what happens. This is often greeted by confusion and consternation by an artist’s fan base, simply because we become fans of musical groups for particular reasons, and it can be disconcerting to feel like a band is trending away from what made us like them. But experiments like Challengers are vital to the lifeblood of any long-lasting group, and they often end up becoming fan favorites in time for how readily they can evoke particular moments or memories in the midst of the long relationship one forms with a group.

And if nothing else, Challengers gave the world its title track, a perfect encapsulation of everything that makes the album so special. Two lovers who haven’t seen each other in ages meet again somewhere—a party, perhaps, or even in the grocery store. They talk. It’s good. Time hasn’t healed all wounds, but having those wounds has been vital to whatever has come next. “Challengers” gains its title from another “we were” lyric: “We were the challengers of the unknown.” It’s as perfect a paean to looking back on the days when you loved someone wholly and completely, to when they were your whole world, before it all came crashing down. (“I heard you live with someone / I live with somebody, too.”)

But by the song’s end, Case and Newman have switched to the present: “We are the challengers of the unknown.” To forgive, to release the bitterness, to understand that sometimes having a person in your life is worth the awkwardness and the heartbreak that seeing them may cause. It is, in its own way, lighting out for unknown territory, opening yourself up, again, to the possibility of loss but on terms bruised and sanded off by reality. Anger, sadness, grief—they don’t have to be forever. We can forgive, because we’re human beings, and it’s what we do. But somewhere, in the back of the head, in the middle of the night, in old scents and sounds and sights, we can never forget.