Known for their sunshine-evoking catalog of pop songs, the indie all-star team puts their skill to their best use yet on Challengers. Somewhat surprisingly, they’re able to corral the wild energy of past efforts into a more diverse, inspired collection that still thrives on the band’s innate catchiness. Reliably infectious and startlingly poignant, Challengers is one of the most comprehensive albums of the year.
The progressive tone is set at the start when glimmering acoustic strums usher in Carl Newman’s quietly uplifting serenade like the coming of spring. "My Rights Versus Yours" introduces the new breed of their chugging sing-a-long sound. As it coasts along a flickering guitar track, Newman takes a more serious approach on his vocals, singing about "A new empire in rags" and appropriately in the where’s-the-justice era, "Now it’s your rights versus mine". The striking dynamic of the next track, "All the Old Showstoppers" starts as a simple electric/acoustic duet before a finespun orchestral flourish gives way to a smooth-rolling rock beat the rest of the way. The title track, led by Neko Case, is an enchanting acoustic ballad that steps up the group’s game another level.
Dan Bejar’s first contribution to Challengers then bursts onto the album as possibly one of the best indie rock tracks of the year. His unique vocal twinge, cheeky spoken verses, and chilled acoustic jam rupture into an infectious chorus of "Look out upon the myriad harbour".
"All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth" connects back to the band’s signature, rollicking sound with pounding piano and guitar tracks, mixed with what might be a whistling robot and nimble, studder-stepping half-chorus. In another gear shift, the distorted, metallic guitar that drives "Failsafe" provides a charming dynamic to the soft vocal melody. "Unguided" is an acoustic Newman-led track that would’ve fit neatly as the most mature track of his solo album, The Slow Wonder.
Deeply organic, "Entering White Cecilia" is the next Bejar track, starting with a memorable acoustic strum and drum thump coasts into a smooth grinder with a lofty sing-a-long woven in as the chorus. "Go Places" is a touchingly gentle ballad sung by Case that builds with the greatest of ease. "Mutiny, I Promise You" is the other past-recalling track, complete with tooting pipe, which leads into the emotional lullaby, "Adventures in Solitude". The uniqueness from track to track is what makes Challengers so enthralling.
The final track, "The Spirit of Giving" comes from Bejar, and completes the album with its spirited intro and soaring chorus. A piano and acoustic guitar escort his vocals into contemplative wintertime carol as he sings "Overcome with the holiday spirit/Mark says the herald angels won’t hear it". It turns out that he actually sings of the "Spirit of giving in", and instruments swirl like thoughts before growing into a cathartic anthem. It’s an inspiring end to such a complex album. Both the band and the album have gone a long way to get to this point.
For all of the wonderfully upbeat rock the band has created, their star-studded evolution was inevitable. With Challengers, the band’s members seem to use their solo careers and side projects to challenge themselves into creating an unusually artistic, yet entertaining, album. By blending their diversity so intimately on Challengers, they fully justify the label they’ve been given so many times: supergroup.