“The Bleeding Heart Show” was the best and worst thing that could’ve happened to The New Pornographers in 2005. Best because it formed the centerpiece of the band’s best album, Twin Cinema, setting the stage for the rich textures and contemplative themes of its immediate follow-ups: 2007’s Challengers and 2010’s Together. Worst because Challengers and Together initially played like the hangover following the sugar rush of The New Pornographers’ earliest work, the antidote to which was first (and most effectively) explored by “The Bleeding Heart Show.” As fitfully rewarding as those records are (Challengers in particular improves with repeat spins), they downplayed what first attracted listeners to “Letter From An Occupant” or “The Laws Have Changed”: a maniac verve for hooks that returns in fine, refined form on Brill Bruisers.
The dense, downtempo influence of “Bleeding Heart Show” is in evidence too, weighing down the first three tracks, before Dan Bejar rises up to declare “War On The East Coast.” The song’s chorus isn’t just the most relaxed Bejar’s ever sounded on a New Pornographers’ record—it’s also the point at which Brill Bruisers makes good on Carl Newman’s pre-release promises of a “celebration” record. The orchestral pomp of the title track and the zero-to-hero surge of “Backstairs” validate Newman’s statements, painting the record as a victory parade for The New Pornographers, the Main Street Electrical Parade marking a side project’s 15-year evolution into a main gig. “Hell no, we won’t go,” Neko Case repeats in the final measures of “Marching Orders,” appropriating a powerful protest chant that asserts the band’s staying power.
But it’s no longer enough for a New Pornographers composition to be merely catchy, even if most of Brill Bruisers’ tracks are sneakily so. Reflecting Newman’s increasingly placid solo material, his Brill Bruisers tracks smuggle their sticky melodies into settings that wouldn’t be out of place on a latter-day Shins LP. (The vocal similarities between Newman and James Mercer have rarely been as pronounced as they are here.) With the release of its fifth full-length, there’s now more recorded evidence of the rehearsed-and-mature New Pornographers than there is of its earlier, unpredictable incarnation, which momentarily resurfaces on Brill Bruisers’ “Dancehall Domine,” a Twin Cinema throwback. The biggest surprise of the new album is its interest in electronic sounds, which suit Bejar’s songs the best—understandably so, given the Destroyer leader’s own spells of digital dabbling on Your Blues and Kaputt. “Born With A Sound,” and “Spidyr” effortlessly traverse the divides in The New Pornographers’ output: composed and adventurous, concise but roomy enough for some Destroyer-style reiterations. (“Your mind saw sparks, mine saw stars / We were playing games, playing guitars / I don’t know / I don’t know”) Neither track is the new “The Bleeding Heart Show”—but then again, nothing on Brill Bruisers is, as close as the album often gets.