Thursday, November 19, 2020

20 years of the New Pornographers' Mass Romantic

When history is written about the New Pornographers’ 2000 debut Mass Romantic, it usually revolves some incredulity: how did this happen?!

How did this band that wasn’t supposed to be a real band become, for the next decade and beyond, one of the leading lights of Canadian music and the broader international indie rock scene in general? How did this many talented people with parallel careers continue to be a functioning band? How did this album on a tiny Canadian indie make such an impact?

I don’t buy any of that. Everything about Mass Romantic’s success makes total sense, for one simple reason. It was too good to fail.

This was a new band, but not new players. Most were closer to 30 than 20; the two principal architects were (gasp) over 30. There was a decade of experience, friendships and overlapping circumstances that brought that group of people together to create a pop masterpiece. Lots of things could have gone wrong along the way, and certainly afterwards. 

But there is an air of inevitability around Mass Romantic. This was a record that had to happen, and it had to happen with these people. And because it did, it ushered in a new era of possibility in Canadian music. There’s a reason that Kevin Drew, when applying for a grant very early on in Broken Social Scene’s career, described his project as “Ontario’s version of the New Pornographers.”

The first New Pornographers rehearsal took place in 1997. Carl Newman, who worked at Scratch Records and already had two bands on the go—the arch Zumpano, signed to Sub Pop, and the grungy, bombastic Superconductor, a favourite of Guided by Voices—invited a group of friends and acquaintances to form what Western Canadians call a “fuck band,” effectively a social club that might play the occasional gig. Newman claims he had no grand designs, but take a look at who got the invite.

Neko Case grew up in Tacoma, Washington, where she played drums and sang in a band called the Propanes. She was such a local light in the scene, known for go-go dancing at other band’s gigs, that local Sub Pop band Girl Trouble wrote a song about her called “Neko Loves Rock’n’Roll.” Tacoma was a popular destination for Vancouver punk bands, which is how she met Dave Carswell of the Smugglers. She moved to Vancouver in the early 90s to go to art school, temporarily joining Cub as a touring drummer. She then co-founded a punk band called Maow, who recorded early demos with Carswell and John Collins.

Collins played in the Evaporators, a long-running band fronted by Nardwuar the Human Serviette (at that point still primarily a CITR DJ, with little profile outside Vancouver). He also subbed in with Superconductor on occasion. He and Carswell were working on the second record by Dan Bejar, who called himself Destroyer. Both Collins and Bejar were also at that first New Pornographers rehearsal, along with keyboardist Blaine Thurier, a close friend of Newman’s, and drummer Fisher Rose, a friend of Bejar’s.

Their first gig was at a vintage clothing store, the Good Jacket. A few other gigs followed over the course of the next year, and a four-song demo was cut, with two songs by Bejar and two by Newman: “Execution Day,” “Breaking the Law,” “Mystery Hours” and something called “Letter From an Occupant.” The demo was sent to Sub Pop, who ignored it. It was sent to Matador, who rejected it (though A&R rep Nils Bernstein was a big fan). Then “Letter From an Occupant” was selected to be on a compilation put out by Mint Records in April 2000, curated by the Good Jacket, called Vancouver Special. (The album also featured an early version of Black Mountain, called Jerk With a Bomb, and an early version of the Organ, called Full Sketch.) The comp got a lot of attention from campus radio, but the New Pornographers track was far and away the standout.

An opening one-note guitar riff doesn’t necessarily sound promising, until Case starts singing and the drums drop out to just a four-on-the-floor bass drum and fills. The chord progression follows a classic '50s pop pattern of I-VI-IV (the same pattern as Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up,” incidentally, although totally different rhythm and feel). The melody is instantly catchy, and Case’s delivery—Newman instructed her to “sing like a robot,” with Shocking Blue’s Mariska Veres as a reference point—is instantly compelling. Then the pre-chorus hits (hanging on just the IV and V), Case holds longer notes, and the song opens up wide. The chorus itself is wordless, impossibly high ooos sung by Newman, an insanely catchy hook in a song already full of them. 

But wait! There’s more. The punchy first bridge finds Case hollering, “WHERE HAVE ALL SENSATIONS GONE?” followed by Beach Boys in a blender, unintelligible male vocals muttering about something or another, perhaps cowering in the presence of Case. Then another chorus and a monstrous second bridge, a cacophony of collapsing drums, and what sounds like an insect crawling over the strings of the lead guitar part, while Neko repeats “the song, the song, the song has shaken me” like a mantra. It sure as fuck has.

But what the hell is this song about? What is a “letter from an occupant”? Why will “the eventual downfall” be “a bill from a restaurant”? Is this all just a shower of “yeahs” and “whatevers”? These questions dogged me for years, as I attempted, poorly, to sing this song at the top of my lungs. Not only do I not have the range (uh, who does?) but the album had no lyric sheet and I sure as hell couldn’t figure them out apart from random phrases. Turns out some of the actual lyrics are: “The tune you'll be humming forever / All the words are replaced and wrong.” Huh.

The title phrase (“ ‘For the love of God,’ you said, ‘not a letter from an occupant’ ”) is paraphrased from something Newman heard a landlord say once. There is definitely a power dynamic at play, the lyrics a litany of disappointments: “What the hell have the 70s brought me?” “Where have all sensations gone?” “I’ve cried five rivers on the way here / which one will you skate away on?” That last one is a brilliant twist on a line from Joni Mitchell’s Blue, which makes me think the whole song is a jaded GenXer’s complaint to a bewildered Boomer landlord who fails to grasp the reality of economic anxiety. Or something.

The lyrics were beside the point, though: with a melody like that, with a vocal performance like that, with a band performance like that, with production like that--does it matter what the song is about? Countless examples from pop music history would suggest it doesn’t.

Obviously intrigued by that one song, Mint Records asked for more material, and the rest of Mass Romantic was the result. Recorded by Collins and Carswell, and with drummer Kurt Dahle replacing a missing Fisher, the album was released seven months after Vancouver Special

Newman has often said that he felt immense pressure to live up to not just the single, but to other work by people in his own band. In February 2000, Neko Case released her second solo album, Furnace Room Lullaby, featuring an all-star cast of Canadian indie rockers and alt-country players, not to mention amazing songs and, of course, the arrival of a major vocalist and serious artist. A few months later, Destroyer put out Thief, a record that was leaps and bounds ahead of anything Bejar had done before, and he too was getting noticed in international underground circles. Newman knew he had to make a record at least as good as those two. By that November, he had.

If there was any concern about living up to “Letter From an Occupant,” the opening title track put that to rest. It opens with a descending riff played on a tinny keyboard and slashing guitar chords, set to a clipped shuffle. Once again, Neko takes the lead, with multiple harmonies joining her at the end of each line. The bridge has intricately layered Beach Boys harmonies (no blender this time) for eight glorious bars, reappearing again before the coda (again, no shortage of hooks here), which has a different descending riff while first Newman and then a chorus of voices sing about “this boy’s life among the electrical lights.” With that, you can hear floodlights being turned on, the music nerd universe’s attention suddenly directed toward this ragtag group of Vancouverites who, after a decade in the trenches, are more than ready for prime time.

There was no shortage of ambition. During recording, there were two key reference points: one was Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea; the other was the dense pop symphonic concoctions of ABBA. Everything needed to be over the top. So much of Mass Romantic sounds like pent-up teenage energy, of people who’ve been waiting in the wings for too long and finally get a chance to shine. Maybe they were nerds too smart for their own good, maybe they were weirdos never accepted by cool kids, maybe they were not only Canadians (which no one in the world cares about) but Western Canadians (which no one east of Thunder Bay cares about) and goddammit, they were going to set off fireworks that could be seen far beyond Rocky Mountains and national borders.

And so the music here demands to be played loud, full of big riffs, fuzzy guitars, layered harmonies, piano parts that never miss a chance to glissando, ugly synths that sound like creaking doors, galloping drums, saxophones (anathema in the zeitgeist at the time) and choruses revolving around phrases like “salvation holdout central.” Then there’s “Mystery Hours,” a song of constant bluster, where the verse chord progression sounds like trying to maintain balance during a log rolling competition, until the chorus repeatedly pummels you over the head while Newman threatens to sing way out of his range and yet gets there every time.

That song is followed by Bejar’s “Jackie,” a respite at a slower tempo, featuring these incredible opening lines: “Jackie, you yourself said it best when you said / ‘There's been a break in the continuum / the United States used to be lots of fun...’ " To hear that line in a pop song in the same month that a contested presidential election was galvanizing America was a weird, seemingly prescient thrill at the time (Haha, end of empire! Take that, exceptionalists!)—except that it can now be argued that the outcome of that (actually stolen?) election started a 20-year-old march toward what now looks like a looming civil war. A break in the continuum, indeed. Oh yeah, and there are also songs on here titled “Fake Headlines” and “Centre for Holy Wars.” So there’s that. Does hope still grow “greener than grass stains” these days? I don’t know, I mean, grass stains are usually more dirt brown than green anyway. I digress.

The album was a hit right out of the gate, exceeding any expectations in terms of sales and press. Someone told Newman after a gig at a Manhattan club that, “Canada is cool now. Because of you guys and Peaches.” It was picked up by Matador in 2001. More great albums followed. They toured the world.

Part of the initial appeal to international media was patronizing, to say the least: “How did a band this good come from Canada?” (It’s not our fault you didn’t pay attention, you Canuckophobic fuckers!) When it came out in November 2000, Mass Romantic ended a year that also brought us the Weakerthans’ Left and Leaving, the Dears’ End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story, the Be Good Tanyas’ Blue Horse, Kid Koala’s Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Godspeed You Black Emperor’s Lift Your Skinny Fists, Tegan and Sara’s This Business of Art: lots of wheels in motion there for the explosion that followed shortly thereafter.
(Yes, I'm writing a book, about this and more.)

One could easily argue that there is no Broken Social Scene or Arcade Fire without Mass Romantic, made by the first-ever Canadian band to erroneously be called either a "collective" or a "supergroup," a trend that plagued others in their wake. The question was no longer, “How did this come from Canada?” It became, “How come there are so many great Canadian acts right now?”

The band is still going strong today, even though Case and Bejar are now only tangentially involved in touring. (Bejar actually quit right after Mass Romantic came out, though he showed up for the occasional gig and continued to contribute a couple of songs per album until 2014. Todd Francey joined in 2000; Kathryn Calder in 2005; Dahle left a few years ago, replaced by Joe Seiders. Auxiliary players have come and gone.) Their 2019 album was one of their best (and, sadly, highly underrated). The New Pornographers’ story is far from over.

There were loose plans to celebrate the anniversary with some shows in 2020. Even Bejar was in. Then, of course, suddenly no one had any plans at all. All we can do now is turn it up, annoy the neighbours, do some air drumming, sing really terribly, and hail the New Pornography that got us here.

The songs are still shaking me.

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