Metaphorically and otherwise, things are falling down everywhere on the New Pornographers eighth LP: statues (“Colossus of Rhodes”), lovers (“Falling Down The Stairs of Your Smile”), performance conventions (“the 4th wall is falling on us” chime the worried singers on “Need Some Giants”), and especially people’s spirits — like the dude “in the parking lot of a dead mall” who closes out the album, as a pair of empathetic but shrugging guardian angels harmonize on the phrase “fallin’ into harm” (“Leather On The Seat”).
Mainly, though, In the Morse Code of Brake Lights is the sound of empire falling, in not-so-slow motion, a palpable sense of plummeting that the Pornos, like the late great Tom Petty, channel through deliciously hooky music. As they make pretty explicit in “The Surprise Knock,” with its faintly dystopian Beach Boys vocal volleys, this is their usual MO of whistling in the coal mine: “Let it play in the background, tune out the sound,” they insist; “We’ll ride the chords as they repeat for years/ We may be on to something here.”
There are plenty of automobile metaphors here, too, starting with the soaring opener “Backseat Driver,” which conjures being stuck in a car behind a petulant “child king,” and faintly echoes the New Porno signature “The Bleeding Heart Show,” a different sort of trapped narrative. The falsetto-spiked “Higher Beams,” with its traffic-jam tempo, string quartet, and buoyant “fuck you” reprise, suggests an inverse of the usual American immigration narrative: “Deep in the culture of fear, we all hate living here/ But you know when you can’t afford to leave?”
As on the 2017 Whiteout Conditions, singer-songwriter Dan Bejar (Destroyer) is still MIA, which is a bummer — in Fleetwood Mac-ian terms, he’s the group’s DNA crossing of Stevie Nicks and Peter Green — but the upside is a unified album, more band than revue. Carl Newman remains default frontman/leader, writing nearly everything here (“Need Some Giants” is a co-write with Bejar). But Neko Case still brands every song she sings — just over half of ‘em — while Kathryn Calder, new-ish drummer Joe Seiders, and brand-new multitasker Simi Stone fill out vocal arrangements that remain as much the main attraction as any other element. Sure, the hooks and the lyrics are as sharp as ever, too, the latter functioning as part anxious messages-in-bottles, part baroque bubblegum life preservers. It’s panic-attack pop, fretting its way through vintage good-time chord changes, and letting us know we’re not alone.