High praise tends to get lost when mentioned late in reviews, so before diving into thoughts concerning A.C. Newman’s Shut Down the Streets, something needs to be said. Opening track “I’m Not Talking” is a sublime example of songwriting that supposedly died off in the late ’60s, maybe early ’70s. It teases twee, but somehow avoids it, eliciting silent sways instead of joyous jumping about via tambourines and clarinets. Don’t forget this song. As a matter of fact, go grab it off iTunes right now. It’s worth your 99 cents.
A song this great can’t help but dilute the overall impact of a record, though, which is what “I’m Not Talking” does to Shut Down the Streets. In a modern world of shuffle and singles, it doesn’t necessarily matter, but shouldn’t it? A song like “I’m Not Talking” can’t make an entire album (in this instance, the LP is merely the answer to “What album was that great song on?”), but nearly everything else is overshadowed by it. As the record wears on, no matter how many times you listen to it straight through, you wait for a moment that never seems to come…
Until the closing title track. We’ll get there soon enough.
Newman’s songwriting talents come down to the age-old adage of “having an ear” for pop music. He is the McCartney to Dan Bejar’s Lennon when they record as New Pornographers (SIDEBAR: though the latter needs to contribute more), and he doesn’t try to come across any differently in his solo work. His last album, Get Guilty, had chamber pop in the walls of “There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve” and triumph in “The Heartbreak Rides”. On Shut Down, there is equal elation in the promise found in “Strings”, with plucking of the guitar and heart leading to loving declarations (“I can do things for you/ I can do things for you”).
“Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns” is classic Pornographers, no doubt due to Neko Case’s always-welcomed harmonies and a big, bountiful chorus that does go twee (but it’s all good). Case contributes harmonies throughout, including the masterful “I’m Not Talking” (you may recall that song briefly alluded to earlier in this review). It’s not all sunshine, though, as dark ruminations drift through the music of “You Had To Be There”, with its debate: “Is it too much to lose/ Or too little left to live for?”.
Shut Down the Streets‘ lesser tracks suffer not only by comparison, but in quality. “Do Your Own Time” sleepwalks through a repetitive acoustic strum, while “You Could Get Lost” does the same at a slower tempo. “Troubadour” has dreamy production to its credit, but a dull chorus (Stop me at the door/ Too late to be what you were just before”). “Money in New Wave” falls somewhere between that void of pacing found in “Do Your Own Time” and “You Could Get Lost”. These lows get buried by those opening and closing highs.
And what of that closing number? The album’s title track is about the passing of Newman’s mother. The vocals aren’t as pronounced as they can be in many of Newman’s compositions; here he sounds like his mind is elsewhere:
They should have shut down all the streets
Presidents and kings should’ve been there
With not a single empty seat
All the schools closed”
It’s as relatable a song as Newman’s ever written — a track for anyone who has ever lost someone close. How does the world go on when our worlds stop? It’s handled with no bombast, no schmaltz, and it carries itself well.
Shut Down the Streets is a strange beast and one that will fall victim to that option that destroys the album sequence as we know it: shuffle. Fortunately, the high points are so high that they warrant a listen, even a purchase of the record as a whole. And did I mention how outstanding “I’m Not Talking” is? No? Well, that song…
Essential Tracks: “I’m Not Talking”, “Strings”, and “Shut Down the Streets”.