I've been sitting on this one for a while, allowing it to marinate in the hopes that my ability to explain its appeal would improve. It hasn't. (If you thought Twin Cinema was a grower, just you wait.) But we'll try anyway.
I'm very happy with Challengers. It's a textbook "bet you didn't think we'd do this" album... a significant but successful departure for my beloved New Pornographers. Despite working in an area well beyond their wheelhouse, it still feels like the New Pornos, albeit a version low on sugar and high on lush Fleetwood Mac/Beach Boys references.
You won't find any catchy, bouncy classics along the lines of "The Laws Have Changed" or "Sing Me Spanish Techno" on Challengers, despite the hooks being as great as ever. It's just that those hooks are set against mid-tempo, rolling arrangements that have more in common with "Bones Of An Idol" or "The Bleeding Heart Show" than anything off of Mass Romantic. Even "The Bleeding Heart Show" isn't an appropriate point of reference; where that song builds towards a climax, the comparable songs on Challengers stay in their mellow little place.
Is that a bad thing? Given that "My Rights Versus Yours," "All The Old Showstoppers" and "Go Places" (for example) are so excellent without the usual dandied-up riffs, that's an emphatic "no." In fact, somewhat ironically, the songs that are most like the Pornos of old, namely "All The Things That Go To Make Heaven And Earth" and "Mutiny, I Promise You," are the weakest and least compelling. The superiority of the "new" sound with respect to the "old" sound is probably the biggest surprise to be found on Challengers.
This development was foreseen, in part, by The Slow Wonder, the Carl Newman solo effort released between Electric Version and Twin Cinema. As with Challengers, Newman keeps the energy level low on The Slow Wonder (with the exception of the lead track) and plays with deeper, more brooding arrangements than had been seen on New Pornos records at that point. Flashes of that work found its way onto Twin Cinema, but the whole she-bang pops up this time around.
I give Challengers 4 out of 5 transient lead singers. I might have preferred another Electric Version in my heart of hearts, but Challengers is brilliant nevertheless. It's a change of pace that draws you towards its side rather than failing to reach yours. It may not be the band's 100-mph fastball, but you can still strike someone out on an 75-mph curveball.