After 20 years, it’s hard to stop calling the New Pornographers a power-pop supergroup, even if neither is really true at this point. Dan Bejar and Neko Case have ceded creative control almost entirely to A.C. Newman, now the sole songwriter and house producer. The music itself has tamped down the unruly exuberance of their peak for an amplified version of the wry, singer-songwriter fare typical of Newman’s solo work. But for the first three minutes of Continue as a Guest, it’s a new New Pornographers, hitting like a ton of feathers. The uplift of “Really Really Light” takes after its title, radiant and buoyant, yet its origin story pops the balloon: Newman admits it was salvaged from a Bejar hook left over from 2014’s Brill Bruisers, the last album from their classic three-headed monster lineup.
Bejar made it a hot line—Newman made it a hot song. As he has for most of the past decade, Newman treats pop as an artisanal pursuit on Continue as a Guest, writing for connoisseurs who appreciate the science of bubblegum as much as the flavor. Even the most immediate moments bear the assumed weight of countless revisions and tweaks, the original emotional core of each lyric meant to be puzzled out like a crossword clue. Newman’s fastidious, occasionally fussy writing ensures a level of quality control as he tinkers around the margins, even if his bandmates never quite catch the spark. Where recent records showed a cursory curiosity toward Brill Building pop and krautrock, the most notable upgrades here can’t help but reiterate Bejar’s absence. Whether it’s the guitar-free sophisti-pop of “Cat and Mouse With the Light,” the title track’s oily bass leads, Newman’s sly lower register on “Last and Beautiful,” or the featured role of saxophonist Zach Djanikian, the New Pornographers have never sounded this much like Destroyer.
The upside is that Newman’s benevolent autocracy allows a single, discernible perspective to emerge—a personality that runs deeper than “power-pop supergroup.” Though the songs rarely say it outright, there’s a general sense that Newman has many thoughts on the Way We’ve Lived since the group’s last release in 2019. “On three, we burst through the Overton window/And fall through the kaleidoscope of your mentions,” Case sings on the fizzy “Pontius Pilate’s Home Movies,” thankfully the only time Newman’s cerebral writing goes full Twitter brain. Besides, it doesn’t get its point across as effectively as the album’s understated title. The existential quandary of “continue as a guest” resonates for anyone resigned to participate in the online world without fully surrendering your identity to it.
The creative process mirrored a familiar work-from-home hybrid, with Newman workshopping arrangements in isolation and collaborating in unconventional ways—exhuming scraps from a decade ago, a “pen-pal” style co-write with Sadie Dupuis on “Firework in the Falling Snow.” In a generous mood, the subdued and synthetic sound of Continue as a Guest suits the subject matter. “Bottle Episodes” tips its hand in being a meta exercise on lockdown living, spending nearly four minutes trapped inside a single melody. But the monotony of the more ambitiously conceived “Marie and the Undersea” and “Wish Automatic Suite” doesn’t come off as intentional: You keep waiting for something other than the same old group harmonies or buzzy keyboards to cut through the clutter and express how anyone actually feels.
The New Pornographers never needed to rely on confession or candor to achieve that end. “Sing Me Spanish Techno” remains perhaps their definitive anthem, a testament to the power of music to transcend language, effectively replicating the transformative ecstasy of its namesake without sounding anything like it. But even if it’s judged against “These Are the Fables” or “The Fake Headlines” or whatever your platonic ideal for a wistful New Pornographers ballad, Continue as a Guest exposes in absentia how they once tapped into the big, sloppy emotions of pop music without succumbing to its obviousness. They achieved it through the second-hand thrill of seeing songwriters at the peak of their powers in friendly competition. There was also the force of drummer Kurt Dahle, who always kept New Pornographers in the physical realm when things threatened to get too heady. For all the lyrical meditations on emptiness and isolation throughout Continue as a Guest, what’s no longer present speaks loud and clear.
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