As its early reactions prove, 'Challengers' will be a divisive record. Some will see this fourth album as betraying the giddy pop thrills of their earlier albums, while many will see it as the most mature and heartfelt offering of new pornography yet. It's a natural follow-up to 2005's Twin Cinema, which leant towards ballads as well as the upbeat indie-rock numbers. Its highlight was 'The Bleeding Heart Show', the melancholy spirit of which is all over 'Challengers', especially in its opening track, the beautiful 'My Rights Versus Yours', which sets the sensitive, emotional tone of the rest of the album perfectly.
'Challengers' offers as many delights as every other New Pornographers album, just different kinds. While there's no instant classic like 'Letter From An Occupant' or 'Sing Me Spanish Techno', we are spoilt with slow-burning love songs. The wonderful 'Unguided', at a whopping six and a half minutes, is their longest song yet, gently building up to its climax of clattering guitars and glockenspiels, in which the wide-eyed Pornographers repeat the line "there is something unguided in the sky tonight." It gloriously shows off how mature their songwriting has become. Similarly, the two Neko Case-fronted songs - 'Go Places' and the title track - are their most moving yet.
The album also sounds like the band's most coherent effort. Dan Bejar's idiosyncracies in his songwriting and voice which he fully explores in his solo work as Destroyer are on display in the three songs he contributes here but, more than on previous New Pornographers albums, they fit in perfectly - check out the glorious backing vocals on the chorus of 'Entering White Cecilia', for example. His holiday-themed 'The Spirit Of Giving', too, closes the album on a suitably melancholic note. The days of The New Pornographers making instantly loveable upbeat pop songs may well be over, but 'Challengers' is a fine example of a band maturing and honing their songwriting. This year has seen The Shins and Modest Mouse jump from the fringe to the US charts. The New Pornographers could easily do the same, and this record is certainly up to the challenge.