"WITH THE New Pornographers, I've never really been trying that hard to make a big statement about anything," says Carl Newman. "I was just trying to make rock records. So I had to do this before I go back to my day job of making rock records."
It's easy to slap the "personal solo album" sticker onto Shut Down the Streets, the third solo record he's released as A.C. Newman, especially if you directly compare it to the string of acclaimed albums from his Vancouver, BC-based all-star group the New Pornographers. (Newman has since relocated to Woodstock, New York.) With Streets, Newman reflects on two massive events in his life: the death of his mother and the birth of his son. While Newman's melodies remain as intoxicating as ever, the music is softer and subtler, and his lyrics are the most direct and personal he's written, relying on honesty rather than wordplay.
"I had a very specific thing I wanted to do with this record," he says. "I just wanted to do a straightforward record that touched on that stuff. And that was about it."
Musically, the album mirrors Newman's upbringing on AM radio, departing from the occasionally baroque and martial arrangements on Newman's excellent 2009 solo album Get Guilty. This time, Gerry Rafferty was a touchstone: "I found myself listening to 'Baker Street' and just thinking, 'What a brilliant arrangement,'" Newman says. "Not that I was copying it, but it was in my mind when I was arranging songs. Trying to make it sort of psychedelic, but in this easy-listening '70s way.
"The radio hits that I grew up listening to, I've always just absorbed a lot of that stuff," Newman continues. "And I think that has always snuck into my music a lot more than anything I studied later. Like, I'll always love the Monkees. I feel like there will always be some of the Monkees in me, because that was the music I loved when I was a really little kid. And yeah, AM radio, or Gerry Rafferty, or the Cars, or whoever you might want to put in there."
Streets opens with the stunning "I'm Not Talking," one the most succulent and pensive songs Newman's ever recorded, and the album proceeds in a predominantly calm and commanding vein. Along the way, there's the Pornographers-esque romp of "Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns," the meditative, hopeful "Strings," and the devastated closer, "They Should Have Shut Down the Streets," which deals directly with the death of Newman's mother.
"It was the first time where, especially when I was writing the lyrics, I thought, most of these songs are going be about a specific thing," Newman says. "And some of the things in there are fairly easy to pick out—there's definitely the theme of my mom, and my son being born, and of going away and seeking out solitude. There's even the one song that's just about how absurd making music is to me, in the middle of it all; all these huge things are surrounding you in life, and you look at what you do for a living and it seems like such a farce."
Shut Down the Street's candid veraciousness may have been a direct response to what Newman was dealing with, but the result is some of his most compelling work. Still, he underplays its frankness, saying it was something he had to get through his system in order to return to the more playful elements of his better-known band. "I think to a certain degree I made this record as a sort of palate cleanser," says Newman. "I felt like, I've got to do something like this, and now that I've done it, I can go back and do other things."