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Is 'Brill Bruisers' the New Pornographers' best record? Carl Newman thinks so

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TORONTO - Everything about the New Pornographers' new album, "Brill Bruisers," from the playfully DayGlo cover to the sparkly, maximalist power-pop cupcakes contained therein, seems designed to seize your attention.

It's the Canadian supergroup's sixth album, another winner in a remarkably rock-steady run. But in an industry built on riding the shiny and new, consistency can be confused for monotony — and after 14 years of precision pop craftsmanship, it's natural that mastermind Carl Newman would want to stand out.

"Our narrative — maybe it's just an old narrative and people are sick of it — but when you look at our band, we're not your average band," Newman mused during a recent chat. "It's like, Kathryn (Calder)'s my niece. Look at everybody involved with it — the fact that Neko (Case) is in the band, or like, Destroyer's in the band. ... Are we that boring of a band? It seems like we have a lot more going on than most bands do.

"I remember there was a Wilco record years ago where Jeff Tweedy had gone into rehab," he added. "He had some sort of breakdown and he went into rehab. So all of the press around this record is about like: 'He had a breakdown, he went into rehab.' I was thinking, 'What a great story. Why didn't I have a breakdown and go into rehab? That was genius, Tweedy, genius!'

"Not to make light of his psychological problems. But I've got plenty of psychological problems and I keep them to myself, FYI."

If it's not entirely obvious, the wry, talkative Newman is kidding. But it would be fair to conclude that "Brill Bruisers" was infused with perhaps a new level of conscientious ambition. It's a foghorn blast to the ear for anyone, press and listeners alike, who might have become fatigued with the band and its steady goodness over its long run.

Though the group's last two records — 2007's "Challengers" and 2010's "Together" — allowed a hike to their highest-yet peaks on the U.S. charts (the latter opened at No. 18), they were also relatively docile efforts, viewed to some extent pejoratively as "mature." That trend continued with Newman's mellow 2012 solo record, "Shut Down the Streets." Reviews for the three albums weren't negative, but they were restrained.

That last album was borne from a heady time in Newman's life, marked by the death of his mother and the birth of his son (Calder's mother also died from ALS during this period). So the ROYGBIV pleasure explosion that is "Brill Bruisers" didn't happen by accident — Newman acknowledges that he emerged from that time looking to make an "upbeat" record and was resolute in sticking to that goal.

"I think I said a while back that I didn't want any ballads on the record, and I think it was for that reason," said Newman, seated next to Calder at their Toronto label office. "Not that every song had to be really upbeat and rocking, but I wanted the record to have a certain sound and any song ... that didn't have that sound got cut. I just wanted it to have a very specific feel."

Newman, meanwhile, doesn't necessarily look back on his band's charmed run and see the same model of consistency that outsiders might — particularly since he's acutely aware of the band's tenuous chemistry, and the constant threat that any of the members' blossoming solo careers would eventually fracture the band.

Case, in particular, has seen her profile swell and swell — her last two solo records both opened in the Top 8 on Canada's albums chart — to the point that her departure has seemed somewhat inevitable for a while.

"It does seem inevitable, doesn't it?" Newman said, laughing. "I feel that way too. But it hasn't happened yet. I'm living on borrowed time.

"You know, it's always been the same. It really hasn't changed in like a dozen years. It's just always been that way. And regardless of where Neko is in her career, it doesn't really affect the bottom line — which is that it's always been hard."

Here, he segues into an anecdote about recording the carnival-dazzling title track from 2003's "Electric Version."

Originally Newman had wanted Case to sing lead. Until a computer in the studio froze.

"We couldn't get it fixed and Neko had to leave," he recalled. "And that was our window for Neko's vocals. So I'm like, I guess I'm singing 'Electric Version.'

"All that being said, Neko seems as involved as ever. It's just that she's always had her own thing, which has made her hard to tap down. It's amazing that Dan (Bejar)'s doing so much. Dan's doing more stuff with us now than he's ever done before, which is cool."

If the talent-rich band has always felt like a finite notion, that's perhaps only served as motivation for Newman.

Not that he's short on incentive these days. Asked if the arrival of his baby son has tangibly affected the way he works, he doesn't hesitate.

"I think it's made me try harder," he said. "You're working for something. And it makes me not want to rest on my laurels. Not that I did before, but I want him to grow up thinking, 'My dad is a musician.' I don't want him to grow up thinking, 'My dad used to be a musician.'

"So I think it's important to me that the music I'm making now is as good if not better than anything I've done before."

And on that last note, Newman has already achieved with "Brill Bruisers" a confidence that's uncharacteristic.

"It almost worries me — like, why do I think this record is so good?" he said. "Because I feel like it's our best record. And I feel like I never thought that before.

"Like even 'Twin Cinema,' which I think always thought ... was our best record, when we were first making it I didn't think, 'Oh, that's our best record. We just made our best record.'

"I think I've always been working with a lot of underlying panic and anxiety and self-doubt, which runs under everything and makes me not pat myself on the back or be too congratulatory. And even when I say this is my favourite record we've done, I don't know if that's worth anything. I don't know if it's going to be our biggest record or most popular, but it's the one I like, for what it's worth.

"I'm not plagued by as much self-doubt. So that's something. It's gotta be some money in the bank there."

— Follow @CP_Patch on Twitter.

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