Review: The New Pornographers, Whiteout Conditions

Despite being down two crucial members, the Canadian supergroup has made its best album in over a decade
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Despite being down two crucial members, the Canadian supergroup has made its best album in over a decade
The New Pornographers Whiteout Conditions

The New Pornographers have always insisted that they aren’t a supergroup, but no one has ever believed them. Between A.C. Newman, Neko Case, Dan Bejar, and a stellar set of supporting players, the band includes some of the finest musical talent Canada has to offer. Their collective résumé is damn impressive, but their chemistry is even more so. Since their debut Mass Romantic, the New Pornographers have always sounded like natural collaborators, seamlessly integrating Newman’s natural ear for melody, Bejar’s quirks, and Case’s pathos and enchanting voice (and vocalist Kathryn Calder’s, for that matter). You can say they’re not a supergroup, but if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck…

Whiteout Conditions, the New Pornographers’ seventh album, is the most compelling twist on the supergroup narrative in the band’s discography. Two of their main members aren’t on it. Dan Bejar was too busy working on Destroyer’s follow-up to Poison Season to participate, and Kurt Dahle, whose phenomenal drumming was essential to much of the band’s early work, has left for good. You can feel their absence, but it doesn’t slow this record down. Despite losing a part of their signature sound, the New Pornographers have made their best record since 2005’s Twin Cinema.

In Bejar’s absence, Newman takes on full songwriting duties and shines. He’s always been the principal songwriter in the New Pornographers, but on Whitehouse Conditions he outdoes himself with eleven tracks that put the power in power pop. The four opening tracks—“Play Money”, “Whiteout Conditions”, “High Ticket Attractions”, and “This is the World of the Theater”—stand among the band’s best songs. Each one balances the talents of the band in intricate, infectious melodies. Voices are edited into fragments and rebuilt into complex and original frameworks. The synthesizer holds over from 2014’s Brill Bruisers, but it doesn’t dominate the record in the same way. The tempos are faster than they are on most New Pornographers records, especially the mellower Challengers and Together, but Whiteout Conditions manages its momentum so that its energy is never exhausting. Closing on album standout “Avalanche Alley”, you’re left with your blood pumping, ready to play it through again.

When describing the album to Bejar, Newman called the album “bubblegum krautrock,” and you definitely get a sense of the bubblegum, if only a dash of the krautrock. If upbeat earworms aren’t your cup of tea, then this is not your record. One could fault the positivity of Whiteout Conditions for being a tad out of tune with the cultural climate. But to their credit, the New Pornographers have a knack for generating positivity from darker moods. In that regard, Whiteout Conditions is a welcome spring escape. The title track’s enchanting melody distracts from its somber lyrics about struggling to get through the day, but Newman’s refrain of “Such a waste of beautiful day” feels like an admonition to get outside and embrace whatever beauty you can find.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about Whiteout Conditions, however, is how well it meshes with the rest of the New Pornographers’ discography. Brill Bruisers was a solid record, but there was the sense of a band getting its bearings with updated tools. Here, the music feels more organic and in line with the songcraft that has formed the band’s backbone to date. True, Bejar, who traditionally wrote about a third of each record, is missed. The album sags slightly in the middle, and one wonders if his touch might have added an interesting surprise here and there. But the heart of the New Pornographers, an undeniable chemistry and pop sensibility, remains and thrives. They’re not just a supergroup, a collection of talented musicians. They’re a great band, a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. B PLUS