I remember when I first discovered The New Pornographers: My roommate blasted Twin Cinema in the late morning after classes, their adventurous pop songs flirting with the saccharine and well-balanced with touches of bitterness, surreality, and unflinching honesty. The interplay of Neko Case’s, A.C. Newman’s, and Dan Bejar’s voices added textures that allowed the songs to float from gauzy to meaty in three minutes.
More than a decade on since that first discovery, every one of their albums has offered the bliss of obsession, the power-pop beauty of emotions explored and lives lived. The band released In the Morse Code of Brake Lights — aptly named, with its many car-themed songs — on their own imprint, Collected Works, at the end of September, barely five weeks before they arrived in DC recently for a show at 9:30 Club.
Stream In the Morse Code of Brake Lights by The New Pornographers on Spotify:
In the Morse Code of Brake Lights, like so much of The New Pornos’ catalog, has an unexpected depth. A sort of darkness lurks in the songs’ shadows, a promise of some danger; brake lights, after all, exist to warn, and morse code is a secret kind of language.
Cars abound in the rock and roll mythos, from Springsteen and Berry to Big Star and well, Cars. They represent freedom and exploration, but here, In the Morse Code of Brake Lights, they are less about freedom and more about the confines of a road without exits. Even if the end isn’t in sight, the destination is known.
Like Carl would allude to at the 9:30 Club on Nov. 5, politics affects the music; In the Morse Code of Brake Lights makes this somewhat more obvious than previous records (though a few songs stand out), especially with the lament on “Higher Beam” and the shrewd observations of “One Kind of Solomon.” But still, at its core, the record emphasizes understanding what it means to live as a human — especially in and of this current world, with its host of worries, concerns, and endless menagerie of moments — with love songs for the end of times, not so much apocalyptic as dance songs to tell the apocalypse to go fuck itself. They celebrate the joy of shouting into the void, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying, always together.
Just a few shows into touring In the Morse Code of Brake Lights, The New Pornographers strolled into stride at the 9:30 Club like a band that’s never stopped touring or given way to the heady ennui of repetition. They burst onto stage as “Swinging on a Star” played over the speakers, launching into the effervescent “Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile,” never relenting throughout the night.
Neko and Carl were foils to each other, with the former’s powerhouse voice and flair for the extraordinary (and a touch of delightful drama) well-matched by the latter’s more droll delivery. The audience at the 9:30 Club matched the fervor onstage, singing along and dancing. A man in the corner with a long bandage running along his cheek bobbed with his eyes closed. A woman in the middle beamed brightly, her teeth shining in the shadows as she sang every song. Those at the barrier leaned forward, almost touching the stage, communing as closely as the space allowed.
The New Pornographers expressed their love for the club, and Carl shared an anecdote from his history — 22 years ago (nearly to the day), he played onstage (with John Collins, I think) in the band Superconductor, opening for legends Guided by Voices. He told the audience that they felt they should soak it in as they’d never play the stage again. And yet, here they came again, once more on a stage they often call a favorite. And yet.
As on the records, Carl and Neko periodically traded roles, though their voices rang out in every song. Kathryn Calder and Simi Stone added their voices often, airier touchstones floating above Neko and Carl. Joe Seiders and John Collins anchored the rhythm section, while the incomparable Blaine Thurier held down the keys with Todd Dancey on guitar behind. Eight people onstage and as many as the 9:30 Club can hold shouting along, as much noise and light and beauty as a room can ever hope to hold.
The set featured In the Morse Code of Brake Lights, with songs like “You’ll Need a New Backseat Driver” and “The Surprise Knock” like little explosions, tempered by the pacing and beauty of “Colossus of Rhodes” and a personal favorite from the night, “One Kind of Solomon.” When Neko sings, “waiting for starlight,” something true and honest breaks open in my heart.
In preparation for the next night — they would play Lincoln Theater, also in DC — they played songs from across every album, spreading the love evenly (though only “Mass Romantic” from that album was played). The New Pornographers reminded the audience just how expansive is their catalog, from “Dancehall Domine” and “Champions of Red Wine” (I often forget just how much I love Brill Bruisers) to the perfect Twin Cinema trio of “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” “The Bleeding Heart Show,” and “Stacked Crooked” (this last being a small and very pleasant surprise to me).
In between the songs, Carl and Neko engaged the audience often, talking directly to fans or making comments to elicit laughter. At one point, Neko encouraged the audience to praise Joe Seiders (drummer) for adding the lights to the backdrop, evoking the twinkling of starlights, eliciting the hoped for “Ooooos” and “Aaaaaahhhhhs” of a captive and supportive crowd. Carl turned around, looked at the changing colors of the tapestry’s stars and said, “It’s like the harvest festival,” turned around to the crowd, and added, “Which reminds me. A random person is going to be sacrificed” tonight. Both Carl and Neko returned to that comment throughout the show, though eventually admitting there would be no sacrificing in the 9:30 Club.
They closed the night with “The Bleeding Heart Show” and gifted the audience a three-song encore (still beaming from “Mass Romantic”), promising a significantly different set the next night. It’s hard to imagine them matching it, and yet it’s equally hard to imagine them not. They are, unequivocally, one of the best bands playing music. Don’t miss them the next time they come through town. Here’s the setlist from the show.
And here are some more photos of The New Pornographers performing at 9:30 Club on Nov. 5, 2019, all courtesy and copyright of Matt Ruppert.