In times past, the division between A.C. Newman, solo artist, and A.C. Newman, main songwriter for The New Pornographers, was clearly defined. In his latter role, he was a goofy ringleader tasked with corralling a motley crew to perform keyboard-powered smart-pop with ’70s crunch and ’80s brightness. In the former, he was more of a traditional singer-songwriter: While his music remained effervescent—thanks to brisk acoustic guitar, twinkly percussion, and roller-coaster melodies—it was more focused and stripped down, and dominated by a sweet, melancholic core.
On the last few New Pornographers albums (2007’s Challengers and 2010’s Together), Newman noticeably blurred the band/solo divide: Reflective tones dominated, and strings and slower tempos often replaced hyperactive harmonies and brash hooks. (In fact, this pair of albums formed somewhat of a sonic triptych with his 2009 solo record, Get Guilty.) However, Newman’s third solo effort, Shut Down The Streets, reverses that trend: Although Neko Case adds sharp, punctuated vocals to many songs—meaning that the quirky power-pop of “Encyclopedia Of Classic Takedowns” and the subdued, lush “There’s Money In New Wave” feel very much like New Pornographers cuts—the album is distinct from his group-based work.
Shut Down The Streets is also unique within Newman’s catalog. Its songs incorporate new textures and sounds, creating a folk-like vibe (and more specifically, a ’70s AM Gold vibe). Newman’s take on this era is more like a loving homage than a literal reincarnation, thankfully—meaning the record is touching without being sappy or overwrought. That’s evident in balanced, nuanced arrangements with colorful flourishes: an exquisite, swooning orchestra weaving through “I’m Not Talking”; the tropical percussion and breezy rhythms of “Do Your Own Time”; a banjo and woodwinds on the ornate “The Troubadour”; and the mild electronic sparkles/aching acoustic riffing of the psychedelic drifter “You Could Get Lost Out Here.”
And though Newman’s lyrics still cloak heartache and happiness in obtuse (but witty) wordplay, Shut Down The Streets has some sucker-punch moments. The premise of the title track, which Newman wrote in response to his mother’s death, is wrenching: Her passing should have been a big deal, an event so huge that it rivaled the public displays of mourning that heads of state, royals, and celebrities receive. Newman’s trembling, somber delivery underscores the point and his voice also takes on new delicacy on two songs written about his son: the jangly, triumphant “Strings”—whose repeated mantra is “We’ve been waiting for you”—and the flute-laden, vaguely funky “Hostages.”
It’s often hard to reconcile mature albums like Shut Down The Streets with an artist’s earlier work. For Newman, that’s especially true: The New Pornographers’ first three albums are beloved indie-pop touchstones, and some fans aren’t necessarily interested in hearing him turn introspective. Shut Down The Streets is worth getting over any bias, though: It’s the rare adult album that isn’t a self-indulgent bore.