On the Vancouver supergroup's latest release, Whiteout Conditions, they successfully combine recent synth-pop impulses with return-to-rock basics.
April 13, 2017 | by Matt Rice
The New Pornographers
Canadian power-pop formalists the New Pornographers’ previous studio album Brill Bruisers stood out in their catalog, an addictive plethora of hooks in a poor year — 2014 — that was starving for it. As tuneful as their work had always been, that one was unique in its overt attempts to weasel its songs into your head, between the bright, synth-laced production and songwriting thrills such as the rhyme scheme of “Marching Orders” (“It's what they do, step one-two / Marching ten paces in front of you”) or the tender chorus buttressing “Wide Eyes” (“If I see no hope for me / I still see hope for you.”) Even the tiresome Dan Bejar managed a classic of sullen entitlement with “War on the East Coast.”
Since that record, Bejar got caught up recording a “weird, quiet” Destroyer album, drummer Kurt Dahle full-on left the group, and Carl Newman wrote the band’s most organic set of songs since 2005’s critically beloved Twin Cinema. Indeed, Whiteout Conditions, the sparer follow-up to Brill Bruisers (a deliberate “celebration record”), is a welcome return to lyrical ambivalence and subtler craft, though that doesn’t mean the dance-pop flirtations of a song like “Dancehall Domine” aren’t missed.
Newman doesn’t exactly make good on his assertion that these tunes are “bubblegum Krautrock” either, if only because bubblegum would be more immediate. These songs take their sweet time, an oddity for what is still ostensibly straightforward power-pop. Only “This Is the World of the Theater,” which Newman seems to have equipped with three discrete choruses (with Neko Case singing the hell out of all) for safety, is as immediate as the highlights on previous albums.
Soon the others grow, usually via repetitive rhythmic devices: the opening “Play Money” driven by hypnotizing bongos, and the stomping chug of the lead single “High Ticket Attractions,” which is somehow only their first song to ever place on a Billboard chart. Thus, over time Whiteout Conditions reveals itself to be comparable in quality to the early peaks Mass Romantic, Electric Version, and the aforementioned Brill Bruisers itself. The monotonous Krautrock influence is also less frustrating than it initially seems, even particularly effective on the lush “We’ve Been Here Before.” Throughout, it gives the album a distinctively European sound that finally matches his faux-British inflection, a singularity in the band’s discography that turns out to be a good thing.
Like any New Pornographers release, this is spotty as you’d expect from a band that jumps between bandleaders frequently. “Second Sleep” and “Clockwise,” in tune and words respectively, remain empty after several listens. But the lack of Bejar’s deadweight and the motorik constancy (along with what appears to be a mission statement threaded throughout for once) at least makes it flow better than usual, and Newman devises one masterful bit of lyricism in the title track, “written in the point of view of a depressive episode.” Despite its flaws, Whiteout Conditions continues a short winning streak from one of Canada’s finest collectives after 2010’s unexciting Together, building even more of a case that 20 years on, the New Pornographers remain one of indie-rock’s longest-running high-ticket attractions.