A.C. Newman may be his generation's best power-pop songwriter, a title he's defended through four albums as leader of the (mostly) Canadian supergroup the New Pornographers. Alongside fellow singers Neko Case and Dan Bejar, Newman spins out stacked harmonies and kinetic rhythms with workman-like regularity and aw-shucks humility. It's a secret that New Pornographers fans have known for a long time — while Case's gale-force pipes and Bejar's entrancing weirdness are major selling points, Newman's lyrical vision and melodic smarts get fans on their feet.
The question is: What happens when you take the power out of power pop? Newman has been asking (and answering) that question with his two solo albums, 2004's The Slow Wonder and this year's Get Guilty. At first listen, not much distinguishes these releases from his band-driven catalog; in fact, with its driving rhythms and sing-along choruses, Guilty's "The Palace at 4 a.m." would fit snugly on the last New Pornos album, Challengers. But flying solo lets Newman use a different musical palette. Acoustic guitar and melodica drive "Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer," while trebly pulses from an electric piano and spare, martial drums mark "The Heartbreak Rides." Overall, the songs have more room to breathe, and fewer rely on speed, intricacy and zippy pop hooks.
Stripped of the New Pornos' buzzy pomp, Newman's words also receive more of the spotlight on Guilty. "There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve" and "Young Atlantis" have heavy hearts burdened by devotion and doubt, like Challengers' many songs about the nexus of hope and heartbreak. But Newman's recent live cover of the great Go-Betweens song "Love Goes On!" best illuminates his current lyrical m.o. The song's theme — dogged perseverance even in the face of great sorrow — aligns well with Guilty, an album whose title and content suggests a marriage of Elvis Costello's upbeat but introspective Get Happy!! and the solitary heartbreak of the Mountain Goats' Get Lonely.
Listeners who pick up Guilty (or those who attend Sunday's Duck Room show) expecting a miniature version of the New Pornographers will be disappointed. However, those who realize that Newman's considerable gifts transcend the setting are in for a treat. The magical alchemy of his bigger, louder band fades into the background, in favor of letting something quieter (but no less powerful) dominate.