Although no one can define it, most of us know pornography when we see it, and we do not approve. Never mind that we’re consuming it in record quantities; we still freak out at the sight of a wayward nipple. It’s strange that something as ubiquitous as porn has so few champions — and such lukewarm ones at that. Rather than endorse it on its own merits, its defenders usually treat it as a First Amendment issue, the firewall that keeps burqas off our backs and Rick Santorum out of our unmentionables. Because its primary purpose is to provoke one specific reaction — sexual excitement — pornography is to literature what an advertising jingle is to music: a crass simulacrum, too manipulative and obvious to meet the lofty criteria of art. “In pornographic novels,” wrote accused pornographer Vladimir Nabokov, “action has to be limited to the copulation of clichés. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust.”
Poor Vlad never got to hear the New Pornographers. Despite their almost total disdain for clichés (copulatory or otherwise), everyone’s favorite Canadian power-pop septet is aptly named. It’s impossible to imagine a band more devoted to excitement, more single-minded in its pursuit of satisfaction, more successful in replicating this arousal/gratification cycle without becoming monotonous. If the New Pornographers weren’t so inhumanly great, their brazen desire to please might seem a smidge whorish. That’s where style, structure, and imagery come in. Inhabiting the outer territories of catchy, the New Pornos make songs that stick to your cerebrum without making you want to bash your head against a wall. Even more amazing, they don’t do it the easy way, through the usual bubblegum mnemonics: the comforting verse-chorus-verse structure, predictable rhythms and time signatures, melodies that go through their paces like obedient geldings at a dressage competition. Co-frontman and principal songwriter Carl (A.C.) Newman knows pop music inside out, which is why he can turn it inside out without ruining it.
If Twin Cinema, the New Pornos’ third CD, isn’t universally heralded as the triumph that it is, it’s only because Mass Romantic and Electric Version set the bar so ridiculously high. Like its predecessors, Twin Cinema contrives a dialogic discourse of dulcet buzz and chugalug, distorted bass and chirping synths, sweetly contending male/female vocals, and lyrics that are perfectly poised between surreal and silly. It’s louder and maybe a bit weirder than earlier efforts, but it still sounds unmistakably like a New Pornographers record, which is just as it should be. Whether you call this confederacy of geniuses a supergroup or a side project matters not: However busy Newman, singer Neko Case, and singer/multiinstrumentalist Dan Bejar might be with their separate careers, their Pornographic output is inspired, disciplined, and refreshingly unencumbered by warring egos.
Newman’s arrangements are intricate but surprisingly unfussy, sonic spiderwebs glinting with hooks and trembling with reverb. Case’s voice is twangless, pitch-perfect, and clarion, big but never melodramatic. Bejar, whose stoner prophecies and fey phrasing make Destroyer one of the best indie-rock concerns going, unleashes the full force of his considerable charm in his three contributions. Drummer Kurt Dahle, finally taking his well-deserved place at the front of the mix, alternates Bonhamesque heroics and quirky counterpoint, and those poor remaining chumps who never get mentioned by name — well, they’re awesome, too. Whether you prefer the headlong sugar rush of “Use It,” the scratched-vinyl cadences of “Falling Through Your Clothes,” the plangent psych-prog of “These Are the Fables,” or the manic Bowieisms of “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras,” depends, much like the human sexual response, on subjective factors. On Twin Cinema, every track is a money shot.