“Up in the Dark” – The New Pornographers
(Words/music: Carl Newman, available on Together, Matador 2010)
I’ve wanted to write about this song for a while, and usually if I don’t get to write about a song within a week or two of thinking of the idea, I let it disappear in the ether. This idea, like a lot of the New Pornographers’ songs, stuck in the back of my head and kept coming back. It didn’t help that I’ve heard this song dozens of times, as Together grew on me in the past four or five months unexpectedly.
Anyway, I wanted to write about “Up in the Dark” because this ranks among Carl Newman’s best songs. Melody bursts from this song, but Newman frequently turns out earworms. His melodies depend on his sense of rhythm, and here it’s the percussive nature of the vocals (particularly in the repeated “what’s love” phrase in the pre-chorus) that makes these melodies snap. The song’s stomping pulse makes me think of a folk singer loudly accompanying the guitar and vocals with the heel of a shoe, and it breaks only when it shifts slightly in the chorus, making the chorus feel like it floats along. Additionally, Newman never gets enough credit as an arranger, particularly in his pairing of songs with the right vocalists. Here, it’s Neko Case weaved in with his own, letting one or the other lead at times while singing together at others.
Rarely, and I’m just as guilty as anyone else, do Newman’s lyrics earn praise. This is what makes “Up in the Dark” stand out for me. Even though it’s a simple song, I found myself thinking about the phrase in the chorus – “what’s love but what turns up in the dark?” It made me think of all sorts of things. It could be the people and things that help one through a “dark” phase. It could be the trust implied in the simple action of turning off the lights and going to bed with a loved one. It could just be the people we spend nights with, whether a quiet one on the couch or a gathering of friends out together. It even leaves the door open for the typical love associations – the “light” in one’s life, for example – that turns up and ends the darkness. I’ll spare you the rest, but in short it made me look at the way love and darkness relate in a way I never considered. That, plus a killer melody, is enough to hook me.