Contrary to what you might believe, most music critics actually like music. It can just be hard to write about the stuff objectively when the assignment is a band you really like. Then again, art is subjective, so if you’re seeking objectivity in an essay about a piece of recorded music, you need to walk away from whatever device you’re using to read this article and go find a copy of Ways of Seeing by John Berger.
Anyway. Let’s stop that philosophical train before it leaves the station.
There are two specific reactions I flee from when listening to a new record from a band I enjoy:
- “This isn’t as good as [[Enter Classic Album Here]]. Why can’t they just make that again?”
- “That was a pretty decent batch of songs, but I wanted it to be special!”
Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to hear magical music from a beloved band with every new release, and you should definitely be able to critique your favorite artist when he or she makes a batch of songs that just aren’t that good. But let’s face it: few bands throughout history have truly gotten better and made better music with each subsequent release.
In fact, it’s nigh onto unheard of for that to happen, but music fans WANT it to happen.
For too many folks, if the new record isn’t as good (or better!) than the treasured older record, than the new one is somehow automatically garbage – no matter how good it might be on its own merits.
Unfortunately, such a sentiment is completely unfair to the artist, and it’s also impractical and rather illogical. As a good friend of mine once said, “If everything is special, than nothing is.”
That’s a roundabout way of saying the following:
I quite enjoy the bulk of Whiteout Conditions, the newest album from The New Pornographers, but it’s not as good as Twin Cinema.
Then again, few albums are! When you release a near-classic collection of songs, you’re going to be compared against it for the rest of your careers. But I had to fight that impulse when diving deep into this 11-song record, the first on the band’s own label, Collected Works.
Everything you might want from a New Pornographers record is here:
- The bright and buzzy arrangements
- The whimsical lyrics and poetic phrasing from Carl Newman
- The lush vocals from Neko Case and Kathryn Calder
- Taut and sharp musicianship throughout
- Crisp production
Whiteout Conditions a fantastic and upbeat album pulsing with zippy power-pop energy, and that makes for a fun listen that’s nigh onto New Wave at times. In fact, the best touchstone I could conjure up might be Carl Newman doing his best version of Duran Duran or The Eurhythmics. Standout selections like the title track, “High Ticket Attractions,” “Darling Shade,” and “Avalanche Alley” feature equal amounts of rich synths and buzzy guitar, while the vocals are often drenched in ‘80s-era echo and reverb. I also love hearing more Neko and Kathryn on lead vocal than ever before, and there’s an injection of layered percussion and playful instrumentation that’s been absent on earlier releases.
But, if you re-visit that list above, you’ll notice that I didn’t mention Dan Bejar.
And that’s because he doesn’t appear on Whiteout Conditions at all. Not even once. And his absence is truly felt when you listen to the album as a whole. In the past, his tracks have provided a welcome respite and change of pace from the straightforward earnest pop music of Carl Newman. Think of “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras” and “Broken Bread” from Twin Cinema or “Myriad Harbor” and “Entering White Cecilia” from Challengers. A Dan Bejar song meant it was time for the quirky, dreamy part of a New Pornographers record.
As different as they are taken at face value, Bejar’s oeuvre meshes so well with Newman’s when woven together as a complete album. But it’s just missing here and rather terribly, and you can feel it in the track listing. The first five songs on the album just blaze, but instead of the typical injection of Bejar, we’re left with “Second Skin,” an OK but middling tune that features weird vocal production and too much synth.
In fact, the second half of Whiteout Conditions is entirely too sound-alike for my tastes.
“Colosseums” is a fun song that features xylophone and great harmony vocals from Case and Calder. Unfortunately it’s followed by “We’ve Been Here Before” and “Juke.” The former sounds like an Olivia Newton-John deep cut, while the latter is a not-quite-there version of “Three or Four” from Twin Cinema or “A Bite Out of My Bed” from Together.
Again, I think fans (and music critics!) can definitely to critique an album and compare it to what’s come before. But they also have a responsibility to address the new album on its merits alone – as if that beloved favorite album had never been made. Sure, that’s a weird hypothetical situation to create (since context matters!), but it’s also a healthy way to approach a new piece of music. The band isn’t the same as the one who made the earlier album you loved, and I certainly hope that you as the listener aren’t the same person who enjoyed that earlier album when it was first released. If the band can mature and grow up, so can you.
I like what The New Pornographers achieved on Whiteout Conditions.
It’s a bubbly and bouncy effort that approaches effervescent, but never quite crosses that line to become a saccharine pastiche. I look forward to purchasing it on vinyl, as some of these tunes have some real oomph and synthy swagger that will sound great on my stereo at home.
Whiteout Conditions is a good record. Full stop.
But it’s not the The New Pornographers’ best (though I do like it more than 2014’s Brill Bruisers). And as a fan, I need to be OK with that, because I want to be able to enjoy this album later in the year, as well as in subsequent years. No matter how talented you might be, most people simply can’t strike artistic gold with everything they release.
Just like this review.