There’s a new novel out by George Saunders called Lincoln in the Bardo. In the bardo, scores of dead men and women talk about their lives, talk about their last memories with their families, and talk about when exactly they expect they’ll be back to living those lives. The bardo (in the novel, at least) is a place between life and death inhabited by the exceptionally stubborn. They are “sick”; their coffins are “sick-boxes”; the angels that beg them to accept their deaths and come for their final judgment are resisted by any means.
There are parts – sad little pockets – of any New Releases list that feel like the bardo. That’s not to say anything about the music these half-dead bands are putting out. They just strike me as stubborn. They’ve been dead to Pitchfork’s Best New Music lists for years. They probably don’t sell out The Electric Factory the way they used to. But in the bardo, the dead have their voices. The only things they have are their voices. That’s how they speak to each other, their reader, and eventually Abraham Lincoln. The metaphor becomes even more literal here, because the only bands who might be able to speak to us, to hold on to their former life, are the ones with strong vocalists. I mean voices. Coldplay has it in Chris Martin. The Shins are lucky that James Mercer occasionally remembers how he ought to sing. The New Pornographers are positively blessed with vocalists. The only weak one they had was their weakest songwriter too, Dan Bejar, and he’s gone, and good riddance, and it seems he’s gotten far too much attention for his absence. A.C. Newman and Neko Case, well known artists in their own right, plus Kathryn Calder, a member of the band since their best album, Challengers, offer The New Pornographers a chance to come out of the bardo on our side – even though no one gets to do that in Saunders’s book. Yes, The New Pornographers have a chance. But they’ll have to do better than Whiteout Conditions.
The new album has four definitively good songs on which that chance relies. It also has three definitely bad songs, and four songs that range from half-decent to decent, each with some sections that work fairly well. As for the bad, any disagreement with me is laudable – I consider liking music a good thing. In any case, they are: “High Ticket Attractions,” “Colosseums,” and “Juke.” The first of these begins with the full band, the first track on the album to do so. The introduction includes a drum part with an overly heavy kick and boring snare fills, high droning synths, and driving chords. These are all replaced by yet another boring drum part, chugging power chords, and A.C. Newman and Kathryn Calder singing in call and response in typical New Pornographers fashion. The melodies aren’t so bad in the pre-chorus and chorus (every track on the album, with the exception of “This is the World of the Theater,” can be divided neatly into verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and bridge – just as good pop should be!), but the verse is so bad that those parts are completely forgettable once it comes back. The bridge has an anthemic tone, as if the song is planning to break out into something magnificent. “You know the song,” the vocalists repeat until we’re ready to know what song we’re going to know and sing along to. And then, it turns out they were just wiped out by all those repetitions: the bad verse comes back.
I have very few notes on “Colosseums.” One of them is that “this song is kind of nothing.” Repeated listens have shown me a few worthwhile parts. The melody starts in a kind of dreamy echo, soft and childlike, before, again, the band jumps into the song. There’s an interesting marimba or vibraphone part – that’s actually not an uncommon sound for the album. The chorus is acceptable too. Mostly, though, the song is too head-forward, as if the New Pornographers heard the designation “power pop” and decided to mold themselves to it. The same is true for “Juke”: a strong groove and interesting dripping percussion to start the song can’t salvage an otherwise boring song.
The decent songs are “This is the World of the Theater,” “Second Sleep,” “Clockwise,” and the closing track, “Avalanche Alley.” It’s a shame that “Avalanche Alley” does close the album out, because it might be easier to forgive its flaws if it were only halfway through. It starts auspiciously, with weird little vocal effects, starting and stopping abruptly before a Vangelis-style arpeggiated synth over a simple strummed acoustic guitar chord progression comes in. This introduction gives way very quickly to a speedier version of itself, with the chords now strummed steadily, instead of once for each chord, along with drums and a heavy bass. Eighth notes on the snare rise in volume until A.C. Newman’s vocals come in with some of the album’s strongest lyrics since its first two tracks. The first verse is a lesson in assonance. Almost every vowel has its echo somewhere in the same phrase or the following one, and a long a returns through from the beginning to the end of this first verse – from “fate” in the first phrase to “great” at the end of the last. The meaning is, as usual on the album, obscure, but that doesn’t seem to matter much when the pronunciation contributes a rap-like hypnotic vocal consistency. This isn’t the case for every verse, but it is well-employed and used enough to feel intentional. The chorus, unfortunately, is only fine, and the bridge pretty bad. There the rhyming isn’t good enough to permit strained phrases like “better angels form the cottage industry.”
This is the trend for much of the album. Inconsistency is clearly acceptable here on the levels of both song and album. “This is the World of the Theater” starts with an Arcade Fire-style opening – it reminds me a lot of “We Used to Wait” – a solid syncopated drum part followed by a beautiful bass line in contrast to the guitar’s grace note-laden chord voicing. Neko Case’s melody is enjoyable enough, but really follows a fairly standard up-down movement. “Second Sleep” has similar problems. A worthwhile introduction, a classically A.C. Newman melody that moves to a minor note just at its end, a well-timed sporadic harmony from Kathryn Calder, but a chorus that ends before it even registers. The song’s ending, a repeated chant of “been awake for a while” is at least as grating as insomnia must be, which is an effect well achieved, but thoughtlessly planned.
The album is unfortunately front-loaded, but the songs at that front are future classics of the New Pornographers discography. The first, “Play Money,” begins with a hollow percussive sound with some kind of shaking instrument behind it and a synthesizer blasting diverse notes every two beats, echoing the chords to come. The band comes in full with a more complete synthesizer part arpeggiating the chords until everything but drums, bass, and acoustic guitar leave for Neko Case to bring in the best melody and lyrics of the album. The melody is a beautiful upward movement for three beats that repeats to go even higher and longer, with the fourth beat now included in the melody and bringing us to the next phrase. The pre-chorus and chorus are equally good. The lyrics do their job the same way those on “Avalanche Alley” do: they’re trite (“Only play for money” is probably the first entry on Forbes’s top 10 pieces of advice for an indie rock band) but they work well enough poetically to be more impressive than embarrassing.
The latter aspect holds true for “Whiteout Conditions” as well, which also has the additional benefit of being about drugs and depression, sad topics that lend themselves to less awkward, more stereotypically “artistic” sentences. After atmospheric droning sounds and a sturdy kick-tom-snare drum part, A.C. Newman sings his first lyrics of the album, full of vigor and the same poeticism of “Play Money.” This title track was the reason I decided to give the album a try, and still stands out as one of the better pieces of music on the album.
“Darling Shade”’s lyrics are the most comprehensible, though still fairly confused, and its stadium-worthy guitar parts are exciting. But it is “We’ve Been Here Before” that does what the best New Pornographers tracks do. Challengers had “Adventures in Solitude”; Twin Cinema had the stunning “Bleeding Heart Show.” These are the slow, contemplative songs, and “We’ve Been Here Before” is, for the most part, the perfect addition to that canon. It starts with scattered droning sounds moving left and right in the speakers until a pulsing guitar or piano, apparently reversed, support vocals with an absurd level of reverb, only permissible on such a good melody. After one verse and chorus, the song gets busier and the pulsing is clearer, until the verse brings it back to its first state. This song is all about atmosphere, and when that atmosphere gives way to a distorted guitar and weak bridge, it loses its positive qualities. But unlike some of the tracks with my “bad” designation, the beginning of this one holds up so well, even after its weak finish, that it stands out as the best track since the first two.
Whiteout Conditions is not a great album. I doubt it’s even a good album, and it seems far too interested in the career of the New Pornographers. There’s a series of lyrics that seem all too self-reflective in a large way. It’s also, of course, not nearly interested enough in consistency. But it does have tracks that will stand out in the future to anyone visiting The New Pornographers’ sickbox. I don’t expect their career to last much longer. The bardo’s dead are invited by tempting angels who appear in whatever guises will be most convincing for the dead they want to bring to judgment. For each of The New Pornographers, they’ll show up as album covers with his or her name on them. Just as Dan Bejar did, the members will go their separate ways. A.C. Newman and Neko Case already have great careers. The others have their side-projects. The angels will do their job very soon, I think, both based on the lyrics and the phoned-in nature of this album. If this is the end of the New Pornographers’ career, it has been a good one. Whiteout Conditions would be a sad, but acceptable ending to it.
Review by Henry Gifford.