The New Pornographers are successors to vintage pop/rock acts like The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and The Zombies. All of these groups could write brilliant pop songs that incorporate memorable melodies, beautiful harmonies, and intricate arrangements.
The Canadian super-group have been around since 2000’s Mass Romantic, formed by A.C. Newman who had previously fronted Zumpano. Newman’s comrades in the New Pornographers have included alt-country vocalist Neko Case and Dan Bejar (aka Destroyer); although as on 2017’s Whiteout Conditions, Bejar is absent, apart from some lyrics on ‘Need Some Giants’.
Whiteout Conditions suffered from the absence of Bejar; the three songs that he contributed always provided a sardonic yet welcome change of pace from Newman’s accomplished pop writing. Bejar’s not as missed on In The Morse Code of Brake Lights – The New Pornographers, on their eighth album, have added enough new elements to keep their sound interesting. Vocalist and violinist Simi Stone has previously toured with The New Pornographers, but In The Morse Code of Brake Lights is her first studio project for the group.
On Whiteout Conditions the band embraced more electronic sounds, and In The Morse Code of Brake Lights continues this direction. Songs like ‘Colossus of Rhodes’ and ‘Leather on the Seat’ are drenched in strings and synths that complement Newman’s intricate compositions. In the past, Newman’s lyrics were often based on sound as much as meaning, but in the current political current he’s occasionally direct; “deep in the culture of fear, we all hate living here” is an unusually straightforward lyric from the highlight ‘Higher Beams’.
The band’s musicianship is mainly used to serve the song, but as always there are great moments – a great John Collins bass-line drives ‘Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile’, while Joe Seiders’ drumming adds some dynamism to ‘Colossus of Rhodes’.
While most of the songs on In The Morse Code of Brake Lights are dressed up in intricate arrangements, Newman strips the cleverness right back on ‘You Won’t Need Those Where You’re Going’.
Based on chart placements and its ranking on RYM, In The Morse Code of Brake Lights has been less well-received than any of the band’s earlier records. But apart from listener fatigue, the lack of enthusiasm is inexplicable – it’s another high-quality record of accomplished pop songs that exhibits new facets of this venerable band, and it’s one of their strongest records of this decade.