For his third album, Carl "A.C. Newman" took to the solitary Upstate woods of Woodstock, NY and, like the album's cover, immersed himself in the forest of his work. What he ended up with was Shut Down the Streets, his most confessional, prismatic album to date. This time around, one can imagine Newman reckoning himself as a sort of woodsier version of Brian Wilson -- the obsessed perfectionist, adding more and more to the sound, creating as many layers as possible until it is actually sublime. Unfortunately, not everyone can be Brian Wilson.
For the most part, Shut Down the Streets falls into three categories -- songs that fit the classic A.C. Newman mold, songs that successfully experiment, and songs that botch the experiment. The album's lead single, "I'm Not Talking," is an example of the first category -- as minimal as Newman gets; straightforward acoustic songwriting. It may or may not be a coincidence that "I'm Not Talking" is the best or one of the best songs on this album. Regardless though, the song's honesty and cinematic feel are so gripping, and it's very clear that it's the song where Newman is the most comfortable.
That feeling of being comfortable is important for the rest of the album and its boundary-pushing tendencies. When Newman just goes for it -- when he lets his emotions take control -- is when his new direction seems like a worthy one. On the droning, semi-psychedelic "You Could Get Lost Out Here," the song feels -- for lack of a better word -- lost until Newman's passion comes through in the repeated lyric, "You could get lost out here." Because fervor and confidence is something we respond to, and because Newman's voice just makes you want to listen, the listener is most convinced when he is, so these moments of passion are extremely important for navigating this unpaved road.
The payoff of experimentation can be hugely satisfying. The shift that occurs after the second rocking chorus of "Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns" is magnificent and almost awesome. It takes the song to a whole other level.
But if you aim big, you can sometimes miss big, which Newman does once or twice on Shut Down the Streets. The satire Newman was going for on "There's Money in New Wave" falls flat and doesn't register. And as if he was trying on different kinds of pants that didn't quite fit, "Do Your Own Time" is a wayward collection of instruments that is weirdly unsettling, while "The Troubadour" is Newman's Peter and the Wolf -- clarinets, mandolins and oboes galore. What did Coco Chanel say? Just eliminating one instrument from the mix would make things that much easier to digest.
You can't fault a guy for trying, especially when some of the results are totally pleasing. Shut Down the Streets is a vibrant album with well-written hooks and impressive composition, an indication that as Newman grows older, his aspirations grow larger. Which we approve of, even if it does mean that there are going to be some missteps.