Artist: The New Pornographers
Album: Whiteout Conditions
In Brief: The supergroup’s first album without Dan Bejar is one of their most stylistically consistent and enjoyable… and also perhaps one of their least offbeat and exploratory. I definitely enjoy it, but I can’t help but feel like something’s missing.
It’s amazing to me that an indie rock supergroup like The New Pornographers could continue to exist for going on two decades now. Literally every single member of the group has one or more side projects – even to the point where from their perspective, The New Pornographers are the side project. And it was pretty much that way from the band’s first album Mass Romantic at the turn of the century, when everyone who got together to record it thought it would just be a one-off project with some musical kindred spirits they didn’t normally get to collaborate with. That album took off, and I guess the rest was history. They’ve picked up a few extra members along the way (guitarist Todd Fancey and vocalist/keyboardist Kathryn Calder), but up until the release of Brill Bruisers in 2014, when drummer Kurt Dahle parted ways with the band, they hadn’t lost anyone who played on that first album. Their flexibility where touring is concerned might be part of that – Dan Bejar and Neko Case both have reasonably high-profile projects that keep them reasonable busy, so the band’s adapted by having Calder fill in for some of Case’s lead vocals when she can’t be on stage with them, and I guess just not playing Bejar’s songs live when he can’t be there to sing them. The band’s got a deep and varied enough catalogue of songs mostly written by de facto frontman Carl Newman that they’re not hurting for setlist material. But the band’s new album, Whiteout Conditions, marks the first time they’ve made a record without the participation of one of their original members. Dan Bejar was busy with his band Destroyer, leaving Newman as the sole songwriter on this record. Bejar hasn’t left the band permanently, nor is he on bad terms with anyone as far as I can tell, but for those who were the biggest fans of his cryptic and sometimes acerbic lyrical style, an album without him will probably come as a bit of a shock.
Now personally, while I generally enjoyed Bejar’s input, there was a sense in which he felt like kind of a weird sideshow due to how isolated his material felt from Newman’s. The band’s typical recipe allows for some liberal spreading around of lead vocal duties, so an unseasoned listener might hear female vocals on one track and male vocals on the next and find plenty of diversity as a result of that, but the truth is that while Case and Calder are excellent songwriters in their respective solo careers, Newman writes all the stuff that they sing in this particular band. Some of us have been listening long enough to know a Newman lyric when we hear it – he makes excellent use of alliteration and internal rhymes, will often subvert expected cliches or catch phrases in clever ways, and if you feel like you’ve just received a backhanded compliment that’s wittily phrased enough to override any offense you might take at it, then you’re definitely paying attention. Listeners trained to notice this sort of thing will probably be able to tell right away that this album was entirely written by him, despite the fact that he and the two ladies seem to split vocal duties on pretty much every song. Bejar’s work had a more sinister tone to it than Newman’s most of the time, and he’d borrow the other vocalists for backup, but it was exceedingly rare for him and Newman to split a track down the middle, or for one of the ladies to be featured prominently on one of his songs. And while his tracks could sometimes be a few of my favorites (“Myriad Harbour” or “War on the East Coast”, for example), there were also a lot of times where he seemed to me like he was a bit out of sync with what the rest of the band was doing. So by not having him around, Whiteout Conditions comes across as a far more unified listen with fewer odd distractions, but also a less adventurous one. Newman’s consistent enough from track to track on this one that I almost find myself wanting to go off on one of Bejar’s weird rabbit trails that I might have thought didn’t fit on a previous album. It’s funny how sometimes you don’t know what you’ll miss until it’s gone.
Stylistically, the band’s been gradually streamlining their sound over the last few albums, which continues here. Brill Bruisers was a pretty fair mix between brash, guitar-driven power pop, glitzy synth-driven power pop, and the occasional mellower track. Whiteout Conditions certainly isn’t the kind of record you’d confuse for straight-up electronica, but the keyboards do seem a lot more prominent throughout. The drums and guitars are still insistent enough that I have no doubt they’re still enjoying playing together as a living, breathing rock band. But I can’t say that there are necessarily a bunch of memorable guitar riffs on this one – when I think of these songs, drum cadences and exuberant vocal melodies and shiny keyboard parts are what come to mind. They’ve also evolved beyond using Neko mostly on the ballads (though that’s been a trend for a few albums now), largely because there are no ballads – this record puts four to the floor and barely pauses to take a breath, aside from a track or two where the drums back off a bit even though the tempo really doesn’t. Kathryn seems to get a lot more time at the mic this time, which nicely counters my complaint about her only getting the lead for Brill‘s shortest track. But the weird thing is, I can barely seem to identify a single lead vocalist on most of these songs. On past albums, I could pretty easily pinpoint which of the four vocalists was considered the “lead” on a song, and on this album, the three of them seem to trade off or sing in unison several times per track. And while I love this approach, an unfortunate side effect of it is that you’ll get a lot of the songs confused with one another at first (especially owing to the lyrics not always featuring the title of a song very prominently), and the album will suddenly be over just when things really seem to be heating up. Given how Brill Bruisers and especially Together kind of lagged for me in the back half, I don’t mind the change of pace. But I’m having a harder time picking out the highlights here. There are no duds on this record, but there are also very few that I honestly feel like I’m going to remember in a few years as New Pornos classics. So how much you enjoy this album is going to depend largely on whether you prefer an “album listen” that flows smoothly from track to track, or you care more about the experience of discovering a few kickass highlights and not really caring if the album as a whole is something you’ll come back to very often. From either of those perspectives, Whiteout Conditions is consistent to a fault.
1. Play Money
Wow, a Neko Case lead vocal on the first track? I don’t think the band’s done that since literally their very first album. Of course, as I mentioned above, there’s no single lead on most of these tracks, so it’s really that Case sings the verses and Newman comes in on the chorus. That’s got to be confusing for a new listener, but I love the chemistry between them as their vocals bounce off of each other in a few spots here. The band’s sound is all spit-shone here, and yet still has a restless edge to it – I can’t tell if the lead riff is a keyboard distorted to sound kinda like a guitar or vice versa, and I kind of find that amusing. Neko’s delivery of Carl’s wordplay is excellent – not many singers could deliver a tongue-twister like “for a fee I’ll fight any foe” with her dead-serious determination. These words subvert the usual warm welcome you’d expect from a band to their audience, instead informing us coldly, “I only play with money, honey.” What’s weird is that it actually makes more sense to me than a typical Newman lyric does right out of the gate – these lyrics are basically an analysis of the architects of pop music who came before them, some of whom got rich off their craft, and an expression of a desire to entertain in that same, immediate sort of way. Knowing that The New Pornographers can be subversive one moment and straightforward the next, I don’t take this as any sort of a serious admission that they’re only in it for the money. I read it more as their existence being a constant gamble – they have to make enough money selling their craft for it to be sustainable, but perhaps not so much that it sucks the joy out of making it. They certainly do a fascinating job of being catchy and puzzling all at once, so I have no problem with the more commercial aspects of this equation. If I had one complaint about this song, it’s the rather repetitive fade-out where Neko and Carl are singing “The song, the song” back and forth perhaps one too many times. (Which I eventually realized could be a callback to “Letter From an Occupant”.) However, that’s where some really fun keyboard hits come in, changing up the chord structure from what we were expecting, so despite the linguistic tedium of it, it’s a nice change-up from an already enjoyable song that led up to it.
2. Whiteout Conditions
The band is so on point with their title track, that I instantly fell in love with it. They won me over instantly here with the mix of live and synthesized instrumentation. New drummer Joe Seider proves his worth here with some captivating drum rolls as the song fades in, while the keyboards and rhythm guitar pair up to make the song an unstoppable force. The mere cadence of Newman’s lyrics makes the song irresistible before I even know what it’s about – my review title comes from this one, but perhaps the most sonically satisfying set of rhymes is “So you crumbled, you doubled your dosage/You wanna go, said the inhibitor blocking the passage/That thing is massive.” Then I find out it’s actually one of his most transparently personal songs, and I have that much more respect for his choice to encase a sad story in defiantly upbeat music, as if it were the band’s very reason for existing. Clearly this one came through a period of being depressed and dealing with the double-edged sword that is modern medicine, which can pull you back from the brink, but the dosage is often a bit of a crapshoot, rendering an otherwise talented and motivated person a total zombie barely capable of driving themselves to work in the morning. Newman’s rhyme schemes must have been a meticulous puzzle to put together, and I can’t help but get tongue-tied whenever I try to follow along. It’s rare for a song to be lyrically complex enough that I don’t pick up on all the words even after several listens, and yet immediate enough that I get the gist of its meaning the first time around. This one somehow managed to cram in two choruses – one sung by Carl and Kathryn, and the other by Neko and Kathryn, and I love how even in a compact power pop song like this, there’s room to mess with the structure a little. (Also, it occurred to me that since Carl’s depression was apparently kicked off by the passing of his sister from cancer, there’s a family connection there for Kathryn as well, what with her being Carl’s niece, and some of her solo work being inspired by the deaths of her own parents.)
3. High Ticket Attractions
If The New Pornographers ever got political in a song before, I’ve either forgotten about it or else it sailed clear over my head in the first place. (Maybe “My Rights Versus Yours” on Challengers? Depends on your interpretation, as most of their songs do.) While the first single from this album doesn’t call it out by name, it was inspired by the hysteria that led to Trump being elected, and it’s more about the triumph of feeling over fact than it is about a specific person or policy. Carl and Kathryn ping-pong back and forth all over this song while keyboards and drums blare loudly for maximum hook value, which is fitting since it seems to be making a comment about politics becoming an entertainment spectacle, where name recognition and showmanship seem to carry more weight than the actual ethics of proposed policies, or the feasibility of those policies actually working as planned. In the past, I’ve been a bit iffy when songwriters from abroad commented on American politics, but The New Pornographers are kind of a hybrid American/Canadian band anyway, and this was the election that made pretty much the whole world go “Come on guys, really?”, so I think it’s fair game for a Vancouverite to comment on it in this manner. I like that they do it in a way that takes down the process by which these folks rise to power with rhetoric that appeals to the emotions more than the intellect, which is something that I think will stand the test of time long after specific names are (hopefully, at least) reduced to mere historical footnotes. And even if you’re totally ignoring what the lyrics mean, how could you resist smirking at least a little bit at the genius of a bizarre rhyme scheme like: “The Magna Carta, it’s underwater/We left it there for the sons and the daughters/One day they’ll find it; they’ll be reminded/When we live undersea like we oughta.” I know I can’t.
4. This Is the World of the Theatre
Um… okay WordPress, thank you for the helpful red underline, but that is the proper Canadian spelling of “Theatre”. The guitars are a bit more prominent in this song, though it’s still very much in “pop” territory – you’ll notice if you’ve been listening to the band for a while that their oldest stuff is more brash and ragged and their new stuff is more polished and mannered even when it’s loud and upbeat, which is probably most obvious on the songs where Neko sings. I think she’s an excellent vocalist, and she’s certainly honed her delivery over the years, but some fans will probably miss hearing her on full blast like in the old days. I haven’t really gotten “inside” the meaning of this song like I have with a few of the others – it’s a fine enough performance and I sort of get the sense that it’s about putting on a stage persona for so long where you start to lose track of the boundary between the image you project of yourself, and your actual identity. This is the first point on the album where, despite how much fun I’m having, I start to think a slight change of tempo might draw more of the listener’s attention to a few of these songs.
5. Darling Shade
This song manages to stand out due to some excellent work from the rhythm section. John Collins‘ bass really pops on this one, and Joe Seider’s drums add energetic emphasis where it’s needed most. Kathryn’s cooler, breezier voice seems like a bit of an odd choice for what might be a rather sardonic lyric here, but I’m only guessing since this one’s reasonably dense. Consider this mouthful from the second verse: “We have found a use for the profane/Searching for the gods in the corners/With the ignorance of the poet/An unbreakable focus of mortars.” What comes to mind as I listen to this one is the 24-hour news cycle and its attempt to highlight every faction and idea it comes across with supposed impartiality. Sometimes that objective look at corners of the human experience we don’t understand can be illuminating; sometimes it only serves to give a signal boost to sheer craziness. That’s an extremely wild guess on my part, though. Often what these songs could be about is more fascinating to me than what they actually turn out to be about when the author speaks up to clarify their intent.
6. Second Sleep
The primary gimmick in this song is a series of vocal samples that serves as its main hook. I’ve noticed over the years that The New Pornographers like to challenge the notion that “oohs” and “aahs” and “heys” are the only non-lyrical vocal sounds that can make up a pop hook – sometimes the way they stack unusual vocal sounds can be really fun, and sometimes it’s distracting and annoying. Here, it’s largely annoying due to how a sudden “eeeee!” sound from Kathryn, which is louder than everything else in the mix, keeps repeating as the last note of the hook. I feel like they could have sliced and diced those samples in a more interesting and varied way to avoid the awkward repetition, but whatever, I didn’t get a vote. Newman is musing on insomnia here, wondering if it’s normal for human beings to be awake for part of the night and to actually use the time productively. While I know firsthand what that experience is like, since it’s become a regular feature of my sleep cycle as an adult, I’m not entirely sure that the music really supports the whole “weird musings in the middle of the night” vibe. This is another case where a slower tempo and more of an ambient approach, breaking away from the usual rhythm-heavy approach found on most of this album’s tracks, might have served the song better.
I’m not really sure what’s going on lyrically in this song. Newman’s imagining the gaudy spectacles of ancient Rome, gladiators fighting lions and that sort of stuff, in his mind’s eye, I suppose. This one stands out a bit musically from its surroundings by way of some auxiliary percussion – some sort of mallet-based instrument, I’m guessing. There’s also a strong vocal hook in classic New Pornographers form – “Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, oh-oh-oh”. It’s no “Dancehall Domine”, but it’ll do just fine.
8. We’ve Been Here Before
It’s ironic that a song with this title feels the least like anything I can remember the band doing before. This one’s pretty heavy on the ambiance, as the drums sit it out entirely, and the “rhythm”, as it were, comes from the keyboards and how they’ve been sampled, cut into pieces, and spit back out in a stuttering loop, while the three vocalists seem to float around in the nebulous space carved out for them. it’s actually a pretty cool effect, and it works for me mostly because there’s still an identifiable enough verse/chorus structure that the song doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be avant garde merely for its own sake. When all three vocalists come together in harmony, it’s a thing of beauty, and while some listeners have maligned the track for not being beat-driven like the rest of the album is, I actually appreciate the break. Put the drums back in, and the underlying tempo of the song would likely make it far less distinguishable from everything else around it. The “funhouse mirror” effect created by all of the different sounds lends itself well to the feeling of being trapped in a maze and not knowing the way out. The lyric “We couldn’t find our way out when we were here the first time” does beg the question of how they ever managed to leave and return, but this isn’t any more self-contradictory than Newman has deliberately been in the past.
Sometimes I feel like Carl Newman falls in love with a certain vocal syllable and writes a song simply as an excuse to repeat the syllable a bunch of times. Case in point, this song, with its quirky chorus that mostly just repeats the phrases “Juke you” and “Took you out”, deliberately emphasizing the ambiguity between how the words “juke” and “took” are delivered. It’s weird enough to be distracting in otherwise straightforward, punchy little power pop song. I figure there’s always got to be one of these on a New Pornographers album, where the multiple vocalists bounce off of each other in jarring ways – “Three or Four” did that for me on Twin Cinema, for example. Having said that, the effect isn’t quite as annoying here. I enjoy the buzzing rhythm guitar, the little pops and snaps in the programmed rhythm that compliment the live drums, and the rhythmic change-up in the bridge. What meaning of “Juke” is intended here is probably up to the listener – it could just mean a jukebox, or a heavily sexualized form of electronic dance music, or a blues joint in the American South. Perhaps even an evasive maneuver in football. Each one of these terms could be leveraged to present a markedly different meaning for the song, if you tried hard enough, and knowing Newman, he probably left it ambiguous on purpose.
The lyrics seem to grow more obscure and impenetrable as the album goes on, but in spite of that, I actually think the final two songs are some of the album’s best, due to how they pump up the already high energy level for the final sprint. I love the cute little five-note synth sequence that Kathryn uses to open and close this song – it gives it more of an immediately identifiable personality than some of the other tracks. Unfortunately the guitar riffs are a bit of instrumental weak spot, just sort of ruminating on a few repetitive chords as a stall tactic between the chorus and verse. But that chorus is amazing. Once again all three singers come together in a melodically satisfying way, pulling off an amusing rhyme the first time around as they sing “In the valley of the middle fingers/In the valley of lead singers.” (The “middle fingers” line is later swapped out with “In the hopeful haunts of all your dead ringers”, for whatever that’s worth.) I find it amusing that everyone is singing this line at once. Carl said something in an interview once along the lines of the general public not seeming to “get” bands with multiple lead vocalists, and instead want to identify the “face” of a group, which throws people off when three or four people are constantly rotating in and out the lead slot in a band like his. So maybe this song’s about that in some oblique way?
11. Avalanche Alley
I like it when The New Pornos end an album on something defiantly up-tempo, as if to purposefully break the unspoken rule that albums should end on either ballads or big, long anthems. “Stacked Crooked” from Twin Cinema is still my favorite song of theirs, and this song seems to take a similar shape at first, opening with a twisty acoustic guitar progression before the clattering percussion kicks in. And from there, it’s a mad dash to the end, as if the group had to get one last message out to the world before everything came crashing down upon them. The song seems to be a foreboding warning of the world falling apart, even though it’s delivered in the band’s usual, ironically upbeat fashion. The ultra-catchy chorus where the ladies sing “News from the last world, news from the future” certainly drives that impression home, as do Newman’s lyrics about warning signs not heeded until the polar ice caps melted and the singularity arrived and Earth became a big messy dystopia or something of that nature. Why are they having so much fun singing about this? I don’t know, but when it all comes to a sudden stop about four minutes in, I find myself wanting so much more.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Play Money $1.50
Whiteout Conditions $2
High Ticket Attractions $1.50
This Is the World of the Theatre $1
Darling Shade $1.25
Second Sleep $.75
We’ve Been Here Before $1.25
Avalanche Alley $1.75
Carl Newman: Vocals, guitar
Neko Case: Vocals
Kathryn Calder: Vocals, keyboards, guitar
Todd Fancey: Lead guitar
John Collins: Bass
Blaine Thurier: Keyboards, synths
Joe Seiders: Drums, backing vocals
Dan Bejar: Vocals, guitar (did not participate on this album)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: