Throughout their nearly 20-year career, Canada’s premier indie rock supergroup The New Pornographers has consistently crafted quality albums without straying too far from their established base. The band has shared masterpieces (Mass Romantic, Twin Cinema), thorough jams (Electric Version, Together) and near misses with the potential to become fan-beloved hidden gems (Challengers, Brill Bruisers). It’s uncommon for multi-talented superteams to release as robust a discography as The New Pornographers have and with now seven full length records to their name, an inherent skepticism that besets all outfits progressing into decade long careers has begun to set in. How does one continue to shape relevant material after saying so much already?
This is the initial issue that plagues Whiteout Conditions: relevance. There’s no point on this seventh effort that falls outside of the skill set the band and its many members has previously shown. There’s the alternating vocals of A.C. Newman, Neko Case and Kathryn Calder that have always provided the base of roughly two-thirds of every Pornographers album, beginning with Twin Cinema. Case continues to climb the ladder vocally, supplementing Newman’s straight-forward lead while Calder provides a beautiful outline. It’s what listeners have come to expect from the band and what they’ll seemingly never fail to deliver. However, there’s a noticeable void that calls attention to itself with a melancholy realization upon the initial listen. Or rather, there’s a severe lack of melancholy. Whiteout Conditions is the first album that doesn’t feature Dan Bejar, the obtuse fourth singer and Destroyer bandleader that has always been the sometimes unknown backbone of the band. Even on songs where he’s not taking an active role, the presence of his focal point tracks loom large and often are the redeeming quality on lesser efforts, as in the case of a song like “Myriad Harbour” on Challengers.
Losing such a unique and strong weapon leaves the remainder of The New Pornographers to carry too much of the load. The band’s draw has always been the full range of themes and feelings displayed in their track listing. Whiteout Conditions contains those same peaks and valleys just without the full effect and bitter edge. “High Ticket Attractions” is the same expertly shaped pop-rock anthem with quirky lyrical quick hitters that grace each New Pornographers album. As always, it’s fun, light, and creates easy access for sharing the band with first timers. With “We’ve Been Here Before,” the pits of sorrow are mined, but it feels mostly like a vehicle for Bejar that was left unoccupied creating a false copy.
By all accounts, Whiteout Conditions is a serviceable effort by a band that’s capable of creating much fuller experiences. There’s not a single low point to call out but, simultaneously, the high points of their better albums are missing. As The New Pornographers progress through their significant output, the hope is this won’t become the norm. If band members continue to drift away, especially key figures like Bejar, the band’s staying power will be tested. Can they adjust effectively, or would the potential departure of, say, Neko Case crush them? This isn’t the first time, and most likely won’t be the last, that the Pornographers have released a middling effort. Yet time may very well prove to soften the blow creating a hidden gem as it did with Challengers. Or it could leave Whiteout Conditions with the reputation of being a lesser effort. That’s a question whose answer won’t be revealed for some time, but in the interim, we can always call back to the band’s numerous rich albums for a place of solace.