What's up with the New Pornographers' chord progressions
September 28, 2019 7:51 AM   Subscribe

Songwriters and pop music theory folks out there--help me out. I think that there is something very particular about the New Pornographers' chord progressions.

I went to their show last night, and I couldn't shake the feeling that their main songwriter AC Newman really has his own way of piecing together chords. I need to sit down and analyze more songs closely, but it seems like he almost never resolves a V chord in a conventional way--it's like he doesn't even treat them as V chords at all a lot of the time. It creates this kind of suspension throughout the entire show, where you get enough power pop gestures to expect power pop progressions, but the rug is pulled out from under you in terms of the tonal center.

Part of it is that he also adds all of these major II and III chords that make the tonal center not so clear. You keep expecting more conventional I IV V harmony but you really never, ever get resolution. It's like despite their posture and vocal harmonies, they have more in common with Can or stereolab than you'd think in the way they just chug chug along and never resolve.

Here are a couple of examples: End of Medicine and Bones of an Idol.
posted by umbú to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
AC Newman is a friendly and engaging person on Twitter. I pinged him there to point out this thread. Maybe he'll answer there (or here).

(The New Pornographers are on tour right now, though, so he may be way too busy.)
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:03 AM on September 28 [2 favorites]

Newman touches on the subject in a PopMatters interview from a few years back. Not in technical detail, but acknowledging that he futzes with pop structure and naming some influences for his approach.

On balance, it sounds like his approach is less intellectual / theoretical and more intuitive / trial-and-error:

“When I first started writing songs, I was looking to Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach/Hal David, and Jimmy Webb. If you look at their songs and try to play them -- they're very strange and complex. No one thinks ‘Wichita Lineman’ is a weird song. They just think it's a country song. But if you really sit down and listen to it, you go, ‘This is a strange song.’ Even the lyrics. I've always carried that with me. Because the first time I tried writing songs I was going for that -- it became a part of me, even when I'm doing something more straightforward.

“When I picked up the guitar, I loved the Pixies. So there is a part of me that wants to chug on a barred chord for a few bars or to play a power chord. But when the New Pornographers started, we started adding elements from The Cars, and Blondie, or The Stranglers. All through that, my music has been infused with those early, more complex, influences.”


“I want to do complex music but I'm not that masterful a musician. So I often throw together a lot of simple elements. It's not that difficult to change chords or add a level of harmony, so I do that a lot.

“I want the song to go somewhere else so I change the chords under the melody and that changes the feel of it. All of sudden your song can take a left turn. Going way back, there a song on Electric Version called ‘From Blown Speakers’ which I wrote as a three-chord song, but decided, no-no, I've got to do something else with it. I just moved the chords around under the melody. But I kept the three-chord part for the big outro.”

posted by D.Billy at 8:05 AM on September 28 [8 favorites]

This article has some more comments, using "All The Old Showstoppers" as an example.
posted by blob at 1:15 PM on September 28 [3 favorites]

Thanks for these. I was thinking about it, and it’s not that they don’t resolve, it’s that by the time they do, they’ve already messed with you so much that you don’t trust it.
posted by umbú at 4:21 PM on September 28

This is a thing! A thing about which I am excited to think more, and a thing I love about NP's songwriting; it feels like there is a tendency to throw 1-3 elaborating steps into the middle of an otherwise straightforward pop chordal harmonic movement.

I'll need to sit down and listen actively to a few tracks to pick out some specifics but there's a real strength there in their song structures in general; it's not outright baroque but often it feels informed or at least influence by the kind of classical harmonic theory that drives the more complicated stepwise movement of older pre-pop compositions. (Plus, the really good vox and harmonies. And the drumming. And the dynamics. New Pornographers is an extremely good musician's band.)
posted by cortex at 5:19 PM on September 28 [4 favorites]

New Pornographers were on Song Exploder in 2016 to discuss Brill Bruisers. I haven’t listened to this episode but that show always has some interesting songwriting and recording insights.
posted by sleeping bear at 6:28 PM on September 28 [5 favorites]

An indirect answer from a 2011 interview:
CARL NEWMAN: This is going to sound almost incomprehensible, but when we were making Twin Cinema we were using midi drums, just to map out the song, and when you would turn on the computer again, the midi settings would be wrong, so instead of drums playing it would be a piano. So where the snare might have been it would be an F note on the piano. We would turn on and the drum part would be this weird discordant piano part.

One morning I thought, that discordant piano part is kind of cool. Then I started playing along with it, I started playing whatever it was, a G and an E. I thought, maybe we can do something with this, and I began writing Bones of an Idol, but then I got rid of the discordant piano, I thought, we can’t use that, it sounds stupid. When I took that away I realized that I had the beginnings of The Bones of an Idol.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:40 PM on September 29 [1 favorite]

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