If there’s ever been any semblance of a “knock” on the songwriting acumen of A.C. Newman (and I use the term knock VERY loosely), it’s that he’s always shied away from biographical storytelling. On The Slow Wonder, he graced the world with zippy power-pop that masked some underlying angst, and he then broadened those horizons on Get Guilty to play at even larger cultural themes. It’s patently obvious that he knows how to turn a lyrical phrase with maximum dexterity and then match it to a fantastic pop hook, but you never get the feeling that he’s putting himself in someone else’s shoes or seeing the world through an engaging character’s eyes.
Proving that he’s still challenging himself and pushing his aesthetic into new directions, Shut Down the Streets emerges three years later and should easily stand as the most mature, grown-up, and emotionally rich batch of songs that Newman has ever written. An easy description would be that this album distills everything we love about a ballad by The New Pornographers into 10 luxurious pop gems. A more nuanced take would be that he’s absorbed a healthy dose of Simon, Garfunkel, and Bacharach into his affection for Newman and Nilsson and then stolen a page or three out of John Darnielle’s notebooks.
“I’m Not Talking” opens the record with a mood that breezily waves at you as it rides down the block, but the tone is resolute, not whimsical. On “Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns,” we hear lush power-pop serving the biggest over-the-top candidate for lead single candidacy, or to put it another way, it would fit on Twin Cinema quite easily. With “There’s Money in New Wave,” Newman flexes his penchant for pastoral sensibilities, but they’re nothing foppish about his character’s melancholy comparison of the commercially viable versus one’s artistic dreams.
These tunes are mostly mid-tempo in nature, which occasionally makes me feel that things slightly slow down more than they should (or actually do). In that sense, “You Could Get Lost Out Here,” “Hostages,” and “Wasted English” serve as the heart of the album – you really need to root around for the best possible vantage point, settle into what they have to offer, and spend some time with the hidden intricacies.
In terms of the overall arrangements, what stands out most for me with Shut Down the Streets is the beautiful layering of all the strings, woodwinds, horns, pianos, organs and background vocals. Instead of a ponderous, overwrought amalgam of too many ideas, the album possesses this exquisite lightness. I’m not referring to some hippy-dippy, ethereal airiness – this album has weight and heft to spare – instead, I get the sense that the characters in standout songs like “The Troubadour” and the title track are participating in a large, epic journey, and they’ve been able to cast aside their hurts and pains along the way.
So without reading too much into things, maybe A.C. Newman is setting off on his own new journey as well, and if that means he’s embraced a bit of character development along the way, then we’re all very much the better for it.