The New Pornographers - Use It
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
I took my time coming to the New Pornographers. When they released Mass Romantic, I had bought enough albums on the back of nothing more than the genuine enthusiasm of others that had left me cold; I wasn't going to be dropping my $25 that easily. I liked “Letter From An Occupant” and “The Body Says No” well enough, but skepticism compounded with stubbornness kept me away. A few years later I had the opportunity to download Twin Cinema (illegally but, I'd note, productively; I own it now) and based on little more than “Sing Me Spanish Techno” I did. At worst I figured maybe they'd have a few more singles of similar quality.
I discovered instead that the band's name is apter than I first suspected; if certain indie bands who only think they're making pop music are equivalent to the kind of pretentiously 'artistic' porn directors that some of us will always connect with Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights, the New Pornographers realized that it's more fun and in some ways more satisfying to just skip to the climax, over and over again. Their albums are just as formally interesting as their worthier brethren once you start looking at all the weird turns of structure they pack into a power pop format. Especially the determinedly obfuscatory lyrics, which send the songs' form and content spiraling away from each other into a weird kind of dynamic orbit. But the band (and especially chief songwriter Carl Newman) make sure that before all of that registers you're hit with the musical version of a sugar rush, sometimes two or three distinct times a song.
And yet... I am to the point where I am comfortable saying I love the New Pornographers, but there is the frustrating sense that something holds them back, that some sort of limit has caused them to make three great albums but nothing, yet, that is the stone-cold indisputable classic that they seem to deserve and have gotten agonizingly close to (I haven't had time to sit down with it yet, but from the reports of others and “My Rights Versus Yours” I doubt Challengers is said classic). Wags may well suggest the culprit is Dan Bejar (“Jackie, Dressed in Cobras” aside) or a lack of Neko Case, but the nagging feeling of slightly less than the perfection they seem capable of permeates down to the level of even their best songs. How, for example, can a song as satisfying, as awesome as “Use It” still leave me frustrated?
“Use It” may be the third track, but it's where Twin Cinema really kicks in. The title track and “Bones of an Idol” are good songs but both feel preparatory, and from the opening piano chords and expectant drum and guitar anxiousness you know this is where it's going to hit. Case's justifiably praised vocals are used to bolster Newman's weirdly appealing half-yelp and by the time they're singing, “If you've got something that sheds some light / Use it tonight, tonight” I figured we had hit the chorus already and I was well satisfied. As with the best New Pornographers songs these vocals are key, both for the vivid if fragmentary story they tell (the “two chicks in the parking lot” who “crack wise on the price of fame,” the cup of human kindness) and the way Newman and Case are practiced enough to turn even the oddest bits of “Use It” into parts that demand bad karaoke on the part of listeners (the repeated use of the word two for emphasis, the way they sing “Four beats from soft!” and the continued, insistent demand to the listener that they use or choose something).
But then the real chorus happened. “You had to send the wrecking crew after me / I can't walk right” doesn't sound like much written down, let alone the triumphant juggernaut Newman and Case make of it. Blaine Thurier's piano is almost hectoring, although much of the rest of the backing doesn't really change from the other parts of “Use It.” But that, along with the full-throated exuberance Newman and Case lend to those repeated lines, send the song into the stratosphere. Newman's voice especially often doesn't bother matching its tone to the content of the band's often unusual lyrics, but on “Use It” especially the power of that approach is made clear; never before or since has having a “wrecking crew” sent to get you sounded so purely appealing.
And when, in a 3:26 song, does this chorus first occur? At 1:48. In the whole length of “Use It” they see fit to only give us that wonderful moment only twice, ending the song instead with further repetitions of “Use it tonight, tonight” (which in any other song would be a highlight, but here...). If any song has ever begged for its players to take the “Norman 3” approach (for those too lazy to click, those lyrics end with “repeat Chorus 10x”) it is “Use It,” but Newman is either unaware of the sheer ebullient power of what he's written or else is determined to be cruelly parsimonious with it (to keep us coming back?). The fake out at a minute in, when they finish singing “Use it tonight” and then almostbutnotquite launch into the chorus was unnoticeable on my first listen; now, every time, it's almost physically painful, as if the poor listener could force them to launch into the chorus just by straining a little more.
Does this mean I don't like “Use It,” the album, or the band? Of course not. I haven't been this obsessed over a song's chorus since I was eighteen and would listen to Pavement's “Kennel District” on a loop for hours at a time. If they hadn't included the “wrecking crew” part, “Use It” would still be a pretty great song, but by slipping it in a few times the New Pornographers have done something both wonderful and incredibly frustrating; they've slipped the whole thing tantalizingly close to some sort of impossibly perfect song. I'm not totally convinced this is even possible (of course, there are those who wouldn't want any changes made to “Use It,” even those who would find my ideal version lacking for this or that reason), but the band keeps suggesting they can do it; “Use It” is just the most wonderfully painful example of how they can't quite seem to close that gap.