This article appears in our 2017 Summer issue, Invisibility. Subscribe today!
“You can imagine all the factions that form around high-ticket attractions,” A.C. Newman belts out on the lead single of The New Pornographers’ latest album, Whiteout Conditions. Repeat that to yourself five times fast, and you’ll understand the joyful geekery that Newman, the band’s main songwriter, infuses into every aspect of their music.
The New Pornographers are a songwriting collective of unpretentious Canadian weirdos, all decades into well-established individual musical careers, who periodically get together to release another charming hodgepodge of power-pop songs. This album marks the first shake-up to the band’s lineup in almost 10 years with the departure of singer-guitarist Dan Bejar. Another change here is that vocalist Kathryn Calder disappointingly doesn’t get a feature song on this album, which feels like a glaring omission after her standout contribution of “Another Drug Deal of the Heart” to the New Pornos’ last release, Brill Bruisers. What hasn’t changed is how often singer Neko Case steals the show with her lead vocals, particularly on the tracks “Play Money” and “This Is the World of the Theater.” Case’s heartfelt vocal delivery lends gravity to Newman’s wordy lyrics. Lines that could easily sound like tacky elementary-school tongue twisters become profound in her powerful alto.
Though Whiteout Conditions has strong singles in each of its first four tracks, the album gradually loses steam in the middle as it devolves into a string of formulaic midtempo songs with diminishing returns of melodic interest. The outstanding exception is the gorgeous “We’ve Been Here Before,” a nearly a cappella epic that broadens one’s ribcage like the best songs from 2010’s Together.
In the dark timeline that we’re currently surviving day to day, any music that doesn’t even briefly allude to current events can feel out of touch. And while it would be unlikely for a group of white Canadians to suddenly include cutting-edge social commentary in their previously apolitical pop music, the absence of insight does make this album hard to fit around the contours of our lives in struggle. These songs’ lyrics of joyful fantasy feel like they come from a different world, and they land differently moment to moment. For some listeners, they’ll be a relief; for others, grating.
For existing New Pornographers fans, this album will provide a comforting holdover until their next album, hopefully with Bejar back in tow and Calder with more of a presence. For first-time listeners, this isn’t the time or the ticket for a New Pornos intro.