If previous New Pornographers albums are the musical equivalent of Jolt Cola, Challengers is the caffeine-free diet version: less sugary, more mature, initially not as invigorating, but ultimately just as addictive. It's the inevitable response to 2005's Twin Cinema, a benchmark that culminated the Canadian power-poppers' hyperactive "three hooks for every song" phase. In contrast, Challengers' songs are given room to stretch out and breathe, to reveal their gooey centers at a (relatively) leisurely pace, rather than jumping frantically out of the speakers. Challengers might not grab listeners right away—it's definitely a grower—but a little patience will help reveal the most consistent Pornos album yet.
Always a generous collective of strong musical personalities, The New Pornographers have one member who's more equal than the others—principal songwriter A.C. Newman, who crafted Challengers as a sequel of sorts to his stellar solo effort The Slow Wonder. Both albums are heavy on contemplative, midtempo rockers with a strong melancholic streak. The title track gets one of Newman's prettiest melodies, making it a natural showcase for Neko Case's subdued, vulnerable vocal. But Newman saves the saddest song—"Unguided"—for himself, letting it slowly swell into his best sing-along since "The Bleeding Heart Show." Dan Bejar of Destroyer is still playing the role of eccentric jester, and his three contributions—"Myriad Harbour," "Entering White Cecilia," and "The Spirit Of Giving"—drip with perverse charm, as always. But The New Pornographers is unmistakably a vehicle for Newman's songwriting, which is pure pop genius even with half the sweetness.