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 (11 answers total) 16 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, 2019 [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, 2019 [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, 2019 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: 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, 2019

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, 2019 [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, 2019 [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, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Coming back to this to dump some small mental notes, since I keep thinking about it it while listening to NP but keep not sitting down and actually making notes notes as much as I'd like to at some point. There are a few specific things that have stood out to me as I try to characterize what you and I are hearing/feeling with their songs:

1. They reach multiple steps up the circle of fourths (or down the circle of fifths if you prefer) in a way that pop usually doesn't. I think this is a big part of their sound, harmonically; there's a lot of songs where they'll move to the IV/IV. (My theory notation is rusty, so for the avoidance of doubt by that I mean the fourth chord of the relative fourth of the key. If we're in C, the IV is is F; the IV/IV is the IV of F, so Bb.) That alone, as a passing chord or a major one in the arrangement, gives a lot of songs a distinct sound. But they'll also reach up farther sometimes to a IV/IV/IV in the structure (so Eb in C), usually I want to say as a setup to for a walk down by fours back toward something in the main key. They'll also resolve off of a IV/IV to something other than the IV. This stuff tends only to come up in pop, when it comes up at all, during things like big harmonic shifts into or out of a bridge, but they'll use it in verse and chorus structures seemingly casually while keeping the vocal melody itself generally tied tightly to the scale of the main key.

2. They spend a relatively large amount of time on the ii and the iii of major keys. That's not all that harmonically unsteady (and its easy to parse ii and iii as harmonic near equivalents of IV and V), but they do it more often than the average band I think and really sit on it sometimes. Seesawing between I and iii in particular feels like a thing, which always jumps out to me for personal reasons since that's the whole underlying harmonic move in O Superman.

3. They do a lot of stepwise movement up and down the scale in general. This ties into the above, and again isn't all that harmonically weird, but pop tends to make fewer and harmonically stronger moves, tending toward the four-chord I -> V -> vi -> IV structure and its variants or the three chord I -> IV -> V structures. Even when the arrangement is otherwise harmonically pretty unremarkable, they'll often pass through chords on the way, or at least imply that passage with movement in the bass or some of the vocal harmonies etc.

4. They use minor seventh chords to do things other than a resolution by a fourth up to the IV or I. C7 -> F is a meat and potatoes move, and G7 -> C and G7 -> Am, but C7 or G7 -> elsewhere less so, and they do go elsewhere sometimes which can be harmonically surprising. They'll also walk into and out of a minor seventh chords sometimes by halfsteps in one tone of the harmonic structure, as in Cmaj7 -> C7 -> C6, or variations on that, making the C7 do a little more work or occupy a more harmonically subtle space than that big reliable I7 -> IV or V7 -> I hammer of a cadence.

5. They as you note work in II and III major chords (generally taken as V/V and V/vi, the five of the five (e.g. C -> G -> D) and the five of the six (C -> Am -> E) in what I remember of theory analysis) while writing in a major key, which also steps outside typical pop bounds (outside of the occasional passing minor-seventh chord that resolves yup a fourth, like in C moving from D7 -> G or the occasional E7 -> F).

And none of this is unique to them, but I think the sum of the parts is pretty unusual in mainstream pop/rock writing and contributes a lot to the different harmonic feel their albums have.
posted by cortex at 10:10 AM on October 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Coming back a little more: I spent some time today charting out some detailed notes on some of the songs. I've been going through the first track of each album for starters, and have gotten through five of them, and... the first track off each of their first five albums all contain a specimen of that IV/IV move I mentioned in my first point. It really feels like a fundamental move in the songwriting.

Extending from that, most of those tracks do that in part as a move into a second key, either somewhat in passing or as a major secondary structure of the song or both.

"Mass Romantic" for example lives mostly in C# but steps into and back out of E major in the verses, flirts with it again with the B chord in the choruses (as a walk down by fourths, B to F# to C# to G#), and then finishes the song with an outro sequence throughly settled in E, repeating B to A to E.

"The Electric Version" is even rowdier, based in E major but the verse can be analyzed as stepping down into D major and then C major before coming back out to E major but then oof there's a G chord that calls back to that C major moment. Later in the chorus it had a D that calls back to that D major moment, in another stepping down by fourth sequence D to A to E.

"My Rights Versus Yours" sits comparatively still in F major for nearly the whole song, no chords outside of the key, until late in a bridge section it does a big stepwise walk, Dm to C to Bb to Am to Gm, and then uses that Gm to pivot to Eb which is a IV/IV to F major; I'm reading that as a short step into Bb major, with Gm as the transitional chord in both keys.

"Moves" live in F# major, but does a IV/IV move a couple times with an E in the chorus as part of a repeating walk down by fourths, E to B to F#. Which feels too transient to call a serious move into B major. But later in the outro, when the chorus crossfades out and the new piano and string and vox piece comes in, that sequence settles seriously into B major instead, cycling through a four chord sequence of E to G#m to E to B.

There could be some sample bias here depending on which tracks they liked at the top of their albums, but as an empirical grounding for the IV/IV and key movement thing it feels satisfying. Once I'm feeling more limbered up on my theory I'll try and figure out what the hell is going on with Bones of an Idol, exactly.
posted by cortex at 6:01 PM on October 17, 2019 [4 favorites]

I jam with a group that covers several AC Newman songs. They're quirky. He combines bits and pieces of conventional chord changes, and shoves them together in unconventional ways. Like cortex says
posted by ovvl at 9:42 PM on October 20, 2019

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for the thoughtful responses.

Cortex, especially! Thanks for digging so deep.
posted by umbú at 9:12 AM on October 30, 2019

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