Things are shifting, however minutely, for the New Pornographers. In recent years, the band has swapped its trademark straight-shooting infectiousness for permanence; in fact, 2005's Twin Cinema proved that Carl Newman's pop brigade could resonate with listeners without always pummeling them with big hooks and ramped-up choruses. Challengers builds on this good faith, and while it doesn't match the cohesiveness and slow-revealing beauty of its predecessor, the album finds a balance between brainy power pop and heartfelt balladry.
Lyrically, the album occupies the space between a breakup album and a mash note to a new girlfriend; the resolution of love gone wrong leaves us a bit wiser, if more guarded. The title track, sung by Neko Case, walks this divide with the knowledge of one who knows the heart's contours. For all the adult concerns and tasteful arrangements, Newman is still a master craftsman of pop songwriting lead single "My Rights Versus Yours" starts off simple and spare, only to reveal a perpetual motion machine of backing-vocal harmonies, new-wave guitar and crescendoing drum patterns.
While Newman and Case have long been the project's marquee names, Challengers contains some fine work from the supporting cast. "Adventures in Solitude" gives pianist Kathryn Calder a chance to shine in the song's bridge, her clarion voice rising above the swell of a violin and the wordless bom-bom-boms of the background choir. Dan Bejar fills his prescribed role in the New Pornos, contributing three ace tracks that rank among his finest, either within this band or as Destroyer. His NYC name-dropping "Myriad Harbour" comes off as a hipster's "New York State of Mind," and "The Spirit of Giving" ends the record on a note of baroque regality with harp arpeggios (played by St. Louisan Eileen Gannon) and muted horns. It's a little touch of the grandiose by a band that has always been capable of more than hot guitar licks and three-part harmonies.