A solid, ambitious entry into one of the catchiest catalogs around.Collected Works Records, 2017
7.1 / 10
The New Pornographers are no strangers to the kitchen sink. Even going back to their debut, Mass Romantic, A.C. Newman and co. would temper their hooks with all sorts of whiz-bang sound effects and instrumentation. The result was that almost every song felt huge and layered, even the acoustic laments. The Dan Bejar tunes were sometimes the only respite from the manic pop songs.
However, with Whiteout Conditions, Bejar dipped out to focus on Destroyer, his side project (main project?). Newman is now free to indulge his production whims. It’s clear from the outset that this new record is a little different from other Pornographer albums. The first sound you hear on “Play Money” is a drum machine, a squealing guitar hook follows, and then layers of synths sweep in like the neon font on the album cover. The synth wash does not let up for most of the record.
If most of the Pornographers’ other albums sound like bright Cars-era power-pop, the band moves toward the dance-floor or at least the night-time on Whiteout Conditions. The title track sounds like a midnight drive on the coast with the lyrics as counterpoint. Neko Case sings, “Only want to get to work/ But every morning I’m too sick to drive.” But for all the flashy production, the first half of the album is typical, if solid, New Pornographers’ indie rock.
Starting with “Second Sleep”, Newman uses his inherently melodic songwriting to much more exciting effect. “Colosseums” rides a scattered vocal harmony into one of the tightest choruses on the record. Then, it segues into “We’ve Been Here Before”, the fragile heart of the album. It’s nestled among gurgling electronics that recall the opening of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I would be remiss not to mention that this song travels nowhere the band has gone before. Its simple, unadorned beauty adds weight to the fluffier tracks that precede it. It also sees the whole band chanting, “Now it’s minds we’re leaving behind”. “Juke”, with its cooing “Juke youuuu”-harmony, sounds right on the verge of falling apart. Each section spills into the next as if improvised.
Unfortunately, the album’s closer, “Avalanche Alley”, feels like a standard New Pornographers rave-up. The album would have benefited from one of the more interesting tracks sending it off. As a whole, Whiteout Conditions doesn’t offer anything distinctly new from older records. But the little experiments Newman slips in without diluting his pop instincts are smart. They put this record closer to Twin Cinema than Together. Which is pretty good news.