Talking identity and identity theft with a Canadian popsmith
It's a bad day for Carl Newman. The rhapsodic pop singing/songwriting New Pornographer behind A.C. Newman's The Slow Wonder, his debut solo effort, has just discovered that he's a victim of credit-card fraud and that he has to cancel his card two days before he leaves his Vancouver home for a 19-date tour.
"I just found out that there was a mysterious $554 charge from Western Union, like somebody had basically used my card and wired money to themselves," says Newman, sounding like he's still processing everything as he speaks. "And I have the name of the person who it was sent to. I better call the police, actually."
Visa complicates matters by being unable to replace his card prior to his departure. "You try to tell them, 'Look, I'm leaving in two days, I need a Visa card,' and they're like, 'Sorry. It takes five business days — if you're lucky,'" says Newman. "And then they say you can get an emergency Visa from Visa International, but that your credit limit isn't high enough that they would let you do that.
"Now I'm just talking," continues Newman with a sigh. "That could be the interview. 'After half an hour, Carl still hasn't mentioned anything about music. ...'"
Fact is, the 36-year-old Newman's music speaks so well for itself that he doesn't need to explain. From the '90s power-pop quartet Zumpano to current indie-super group New Pornographers, alongside Neko Case and Destroyer's Dan Bejar, and now the Wonder full-length, Newman has honed and showboated an impeccable pop gift, crafting instantly pleasurable, summery nuggets. Newman writes songs with classic '70s sunburst guitar hooks, tempo-changing bridges, and choruses that, because of their frequent oddity, cling to the brain like bubble gum to hair.
"I think I've always had this total love for the pop song that goes back to when I was a little kid," says Newman. "And I think it's always stayed with me, but through the years, there's always been these really cool bands that are not necessarily pop but I totally loved them — like the Throwing Muses or the Thinking Fellers Union — there's tons of 'em that had an influence on me along the way. So I'm always writing pop songs, but there's always these ideas where to go with the pop song, little messed up things to do."
For Wonder, Newman has reined in the rhythmic thrust of his New Pornographers' jolts and tamed the overdrive tempos, topping out at a boisterous skip rather than breathless sprint. And the more minimal results remain unmistakably Newmanesque: "Miracle Drug" flits along with a Kinks-y momentum; a piano line and simple drum kick dances "On the Table" around the room; a bubbly XTC keyboard and guitar chug levitates "Secretarial"; and a heavy cello figure Mingus-swings in pulses throughout "The Town Halo."
But it's Newman's peculiar lyrics that sear the ears. He favors a corkscrewing logic that both embraces and subverts pop vacuity, often singing about a nothing that's something in the same song. He has a knack for placing an obtusely cheeky rhyme couplet close to blood-drawing thorns, such as the "On the downside, we buy, we pull through/Through the pouring choices rich kids choose" that precedes "Lady we both know/What the scars don't show" in break-up farewell "Drink to Me, Babe, Then."
It's a deft and artful verbal touch from a guy who admits he doesn't really like writing lyrics. "I find that the hardest part, maybe because I'm just kind of picky about lyrics," says Newman. "I don't consider myself a poet or anything, but I'm really aware of terrible lyrics. When I'm writing, I don't want to write great lyrics, I just want to write not terrible lyrics."
It's that sort of deadpan wit that enables Newman to find some humor in sudden credit-card woes. "It's pretty classic, though, right before tour," says Newman, laughing. "You really need one of those things on the road. It makes your life a lot easier when you're trying to do things like get hotel rooms, little things like, I don't know, everything."