When we last checked in with The New Pornographers, we were coming down from the euphoria that was Brill Bruisers, a return to supercharged, power-pop form. I was never one of those who bad-mouthed the previous Challengers and Together. Sure, they were a little more sedate, but still were filled with tremendous songs that stuck in the brain like warm peanut butter. But Brill Bruisers was another thing entirely, glossed up just enough with synths to feel both modern and of a piece with the rest of the catalog. So, what is there to say about the new album, Whiteout Conditions?
Tough to answer. Head writer A.C. Newman probably couldn’t write a truly bad song even if it was a contest where the purpose was to do so. There are good songs in here, but nothing jumps out instantly, demanding an instant replay. The new album is so synth-heavy, most instances of guitar are drowned out like a 1,000 year flood. The delicate balancing act between the two, much like the balancing act between Newman and vocal co-conspirator Neko Case, just isn’t here. In a lot of respects, this album feels like a solo experiment that happens to have band collaborators guesting.
That could be, to be honest, an ambivalence toward change. If that’s the case, then the fault lies squarely on my shoulders, because the music here is as adept as any major pop act we know of right now. Personally, I kept drawing private comparisons to late-period Mutemath or mid-period Of Montreal (think the sweet spot between The Sunlandic Twins and Hissing Fauna), or any big-budget studio confection that currently dominates the airwaves. The previously mentioned are records I genuinely like, and yet I find myself working harder to love Whiteout Conditions than I’ve ever done before.
Another difference beyond the digital dominance is the absence of Dan Bejar in the mix. In more than one venue, it’s been said the only reason he’s not here this time is that because schedules didn’t permit it. There’s some relief in that, but only a small amount. His contributions to the band, as a sort of weird cousin who appears now and again to shake things up, are crucial to the group’s balance, and might have connected me better with the current outing.
It very well could be that I’m making too hard a distinction between The New Pornographers and MY New Pornographers. Either way, I can’t wholeheartedly say rush out and buy Whiteout Conditions. At this point, I can’t even imply this is a “grower,” and that alone is rather a statement of disappointment.