Indie supergroup The New Pornographers return to Chicago for a single, intimate show at Thalia Hall in June.
What We Say
“Cohesive.” It’s a word New Pornographers founder A.C. Newman still sounds a little bit surprised to say as he describing the band’s seventh album, Whiteout Conditions. It’s a quality that you wouldn’t necessarily intuitively associate with a so-called supergroup that, by its very collective nature, seems bound to have a good deal of stylistic variance built into the formula (or lack of it). Can an outfit built on the appeal of multiple frontmen and frontwomen develop a signature sound after all? Maybe, and maybe better late than never.
“On other records,” says Newman, “it felt like sometimes it was very clear: oh, this is a fast one with me singing, and then the next would be a slow song with Neko (Case) singing. And I’ve always liked that in a White Album kind of way — being a band that just does whatever the hell they want from track to track. But when we did Brill Bruisers (the band’s previous album, released in 2014), it was the first time where I thought: Let’s try to make a cohesive record. Let’s try to give it a sound and see how focused we can make it. And on this record, I think we went a lot farther down that road.”
The focus on Whiteout Conditions (The New Pornographers’ first album on their own imprint, Collected Works Records, in partnership with Concord Records) comes down to a couple of notable shifts: increased tempos, for one, and increasingly blended vocals, for another. There are fewer extended solo lead vocal turns by any of the band members and more choral effects or interplay between the men and women in the group. If you’re of a certain age, you might start thinking of them as an indie-rock Mamas and the Papas, or… “I’ll take that,” Newman says, “but the Fifth Dimension is always the one we’re going for, way more than the Mamas and the Papas! I hesitate to throw out catchphrases that might be repeated back to me a thousand times, but at the beginning of this record, there was some thinking that we wanted it to be like a Krautrock Fifth Dimension. Of course, our mutated idea of what Krautrock is probably doesn’t sound like Krautrock at all. But we were thinking: Let’s try and rock in a different way.”
As pacing goes, the overriding modus operandi here might be described as (with apologies to Russ Myer) “Faster, Pornographers, kill, kill!” Says Newman, “If we did an album that was just nothing but very quiet ballads, I would think, this isn’t right. If we were trying to sound like Bon Iver, I’d think, no, this is not what we’re supposed to be doing.” No danger of any confusion there, this time. You might flash back at this moment to some thoughts Newman shared right after the group finished that last record, Brill Bruisers. At that time, he said, “After finishing this record, I’m thinking to myself, ‘The next record should be even faster.’” Three years later, does Newman think he fulfilled that prophecy on the new album? “We did get faster, I think!” he laughs. “With the last song on this album, ‘Avalanche Alley,’ we thought, ‘This has to be the final song,’ because it’s 180 BPM or something, and if we put it anywhere else on the record, the next song would sound like it was in slow motion.”
But the album is hardly just about a need for speed. “Avalanche Alley” is every bit as haunting as it is fleet, something that applies throughout a record rich in evocative and possibly even spooky earworms. Says Newman, “I tend to think, ‘Oh, these songs are so different from anything I’ve done,’ but they probably aren’t, because it’s still got the sense of melody, and that’s probably what people notice the most. But also, when we were working on songs like ‘Play Money’ and ‘Avalanche Alley,’ we were just wanting them to have some amazing drive.” Fifth Dimension associations notwithstanding, the very title of Whiteout Conditions lets you know that this is not just going to be an album about letting the sunshine in. While Newman emphasizes that “it’s not a concept album,” it does have a few weighty things on its mind amid the frantic fun.
“Sometimes I don’t think my songs are about anything you could pin down, but then I listen to ‘em and go, ‘Oh, this song is definitely about something very specific’ —like ‘Whiteout Conditions.’ It’s basically a song about going through a depressive episode. It’s about the eternal battle, which feels like an epic battle, and just trying to get out of that place and into another place.” Why make that emotionally downbeat a song the title track to such an up-tempo album? “The whole album is not about that, at all,” he says, “but the argument could be made that emotional whiteout conditions are what drive me to create. So maybe it is a literal title in that respect.”
The road veers toward the political on “High Ticket Attractions,” in which any seeming allusions to topical events and the state of the world are strictly intentional. Newman says this single “was written before Trump won the election, although there was already a lot of anxiety of ‘Holy shit, things could go terribly wrong.’ Sometimes in the past, I’ve been very flippant about writing about the end of the world, or society falling apart, or revolution, just as iconography to dabble in. So it’s strange to get to a point where we’re seriously concerned about things like that and feel these are dangerous times. There’s a lot of anxiety to lines like ‘The Mayans took their science and dumped it all in the drink and went silent,’ and the Magna Carta being underwater. All the water stuff is an obvious reference point for global warming: We came from the water; are we going back there?”
“Clockwise” has some major irony going on with a chorus that repeatedly invokes “the valley of lead singers.” Newman explains, “Something I’ve always done is trying to be sort of meta with lyrics. When you’re a musician, sometimes you feel like you live in a very closed-off bubble. So that’s what I was thinking about when I wrote that—trying to write a folk song about some place, and the only place I could think of is a place that’s filled with nothing but lead singers. And I just liked to put the words ‘lead singer’ in a chorus that you’re singing lead on! It comes back to the communication theory that the medium you use is so loaded, it’s hard for the message to escape that.”
Anyway, if that mythical Valley of Lead Singers includes as many all-star vocalists as The New Pornographers employ, who’d want to go to the mountaintop? It’s a gorgeous gorge to be speeding through, experiencing Whiteout Conditions with the hazard lights blinking at more exhilarating beats-per-minute than ever before.