For whatever reason, I hadn't heard the first New Pornographers album until recently. It isn't a revelatory listen for someone who's followed their music since their second album, Electric Version, but it does clearly lay the foundation for the band's sound. Hooks and melodies immediately find purchase in the listener's mind, whether it be the huge choruses of 'Letter From An Occupant' or with a pinch more subtlety, as with the continually peaking refrains of 'To Wild Homes.' Unfortunately, the lyrics and songwriting variety aren't as strong as they would be on later albums, and as a result some of the songs have a slight, dashed off feel that combines with Mass Romantic's monotonous energy level to drag the album down. 'The Mary Martin Show' is the obvious offender here, and much of the album could be shuffled into any order with no loss of flow or pacing, since it's constantly energetic and loud. Moreover, the production of Mass Romantic is shrill and treble heavy, and as a result the personality of the voices of the band's three vocalists are often lost in a mess of keyboards, organs, guitars, and, often, the backing vocals of the others. Simply put, this is an example of an album deservedly getting praise upon its release for the things it did right, but eventually it's made obsolete when later releases from the same band did everything it does better.
While Mass Romantic may not be the indie classic that it has garnered a reputation as, I would argue that it was inadvertently important for how well it opened the door for Canadian indie rock to emerge as a major creative force. It was released in Canada in 2000 but didn't see official release here until 2003; in the meantime, the album was winning rave reviews in the American press, even giving the band a sold out tour. Subsequent Canadian indie bands that hit it big, like Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, and Wolf Parade, may not have followed a similar fame curve, but they did share a collective/collaborative make up. As the New Pornographers were a self-styled “supergroup” made up of people who were in other bands or were solo artists in their own right, so too did those aforementioned bands have members who were in other bands or had solo/side projects. This is really quite similar to the way Chicago indie rock and post-rock bands of the 90s operated, though in that case there was nowhere near the level of popularity or attention paid, and often bands were incredibly short lived or extremely obscure, their output hard to track down. Or both. In Canada's case, however, the burgeoning online press and resultant documentation of bands, the prolificacy and quality of the artists, and the good faith support of record companies with modest sales goals were such that you can now busy yourself for a couple months just with the New Pornographers's family tree alone, and most of the albums, EPs, and singles are still in print and relatively easy to find.
Judged as music, Mass Romantic is a fine piece of modern power-pop that was made somewhat redundant by the New Pornographers's next album,Electric Version, which not only improved upon this debut, but arguably perfected their trademark power-pop sound to the extent that by their third album they were already moving away from it. As an early example of one of the major trends of music during the 00s, however, Mass Romantic is a crucial release.
4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5