The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers

Review of: Brill Bruisers

Reviewed by:
On September 21, 2014
Last modified:January 2, 2016


Brill Bruisers is a joyful return to form for The New Pornographers, and one of the best albums of 2014.

Well, holy shit. Let’s throw some cards on the table: Brill Bruisers is the best album that The New Pornographers have done in nearly a decade. It is Twin Cinema-level good. If you’re ever going to remind a person of why you’re one of their favourite bands, this is the way to do it. It’s been a long road, but everyone’s favourite west-coast indie nerds have found a renewed cohesion and a distinct joy in Brill Bruisers, their sixth album.

The New Pornographers, for those unfamiliar, are a supergroup comprised of several musicians who all have independent careers, bands, and artistic styles; when they get together, the result is always a glorious mess of mostly-Canadian indie rock. A.C. Newman is the frontman, anchoring everyone together; other vocals are helmed by Neko Case, Kathryn Calder, and Dan Bejar, with additional instrumentation by John Collins, Todd Fancey, and Blaine Thurier.

Part of what makes Brill Bruisers so delightful is that it’s a return to a form that we didn’t realize was missing. The New Pornographers’ first two albums, Mass Romantic and Electric Version, had a rough-edged oddness and a lot of manic energy; there was hardly a ballad in sight, and the phenomenally weird Dan Bejar was a lot more avant-garde. 2005’s Twin Cinema is widely considered to be the New Pornographers’ best album, a perfect balance of clever rock and demure chamber pop. The next two releases slowed down considerably; 2007’s Challengers was lovely and contemplative, maintaining the improved production values from Twin Cinema, but showing more of a distinct separation of the vocalists. There were three Case songs, three Bejar songs, and one helmed by Calder. Then came 2010’s Together, which (ironically) saw the group at its most musically fractured; it seemed like each singer showed up for their tracks and recorded them at totally different times, leaving Newman to plug them into place and try to tie the loose ends.

Brill Bruisers, on the other hand, feels like a true group effort, and it’s stronger for it. Several band members have suffered significant losses in the past four years, and while Together and Challengers both felt emotionally wrought, Bruisers is a joyous celebration. The New Pornographers have returned to their electronic-driven roots with this album, hanging their lyrics on a gleefully artificial-sounding framework. Backstairs”, for instance, starts with digitized vocals that wouldn’t be out of place on a Daft Punk album; the incredibly sexy “Dancehall Domine” is scored with a classic synth riff right out of a Depeche Mode song.

The titular “Brill Bruisers” bursts out of the gate with an unmistakable bouncy quality and a few choice potshots at the relationship between musician and audience (“Looking for searchlights leading the charge / The mass appeal / To brilliant bruisers taking the wheel”) . “Fantasy Fools” is a spiritual sequel to Twin Cinema‘s “Use It”, a straight-up rock song with more orchestration than you’d ever expect out of something so poppy. It takes talent to make a complex thing look like effortless fluff, and the New Pornographers have that skill in spades.

I’ve always judged New Pornographers albums by how much I can stand the Dan Bejar songs; the infamously odd frontman of Destroyer is the Lennon to A.C. Newman’s McCartney, writing songs that are more technically brilliant but also alienating to all but the biggest music snobs. It’s taken me literally years to stop hating some of his earliest work on Mass Romantic; here on Brill Bruisers, he is tempered by additional vocals from other members (and guest Amber Webber on “Born With a Sound”) and a general sense of cohesion throughout all thirteen tracks. He stands out less, and therefore his contributions don’t feel like such sore thumbs the way they have in the past; the bleepy “Spyder”, for instance, features Calder and Case as backup vocalists and a truly gorgeous harmonica solo from Newman, and “War on the East Coast” is immensely playful and has a tune you can actually sing along to.

When Brill Bruisers does slow down, it never plods. “Champions of Red Wine” sees Case channeling Fleetwood Mac; “Another Drug Deal of the Heart”, meanwhile, wouldn’t sound out of place on a Magnetic Fields album (and that’s one of the highest compliments I can ever give). “Wide Eyes” has one of my favourite lines on the whole album, especially knowing how members like Newman, Case, and Calder have struggled in recent years : “And if you see no hope for me / I still see hope for you / In the high-rise of the morning / the exception that proves my rule.” While the slower tracks on Challengers and Together left you with a deep sense of sadness, here they never lose the running sense of optimism that makes Brill Bruisers such an aural pleasure.

That joy reaches its zenith with the final track. While all of the New Pornographers’ albums have had fantastic closing songs, “You Tell Me Where” is particularly special. It feels like Newman and company are reaching out to each other and to the audience (“Old friends from last call”) with open arms. “So you tell me where to be, I’ll be there,” they sing, and your humble reviewer starts to cry a little. Together had all the makings of a finale; it sounded like everyone was tired and running out of steam, and it wouldn’t have surprised me if it was the very last time that the New Pornographers made music together. But Brill Bruisers is a return to the playful zaniness of their earlier work while still looking and moving forward. It’s not a Twin Cinema copy, but it’s definitely a worthy successor, and easily one of the best albums of the year.