How many of you went to see the New Pornographers at Prospect Park in the summer of 2015? It was what you would expect: a lot of fun. They played the hits, keys swooshed and guitars crunched and clanged….and there was plenty of room to roam around. Fifteen years ago, it would have been impossible to get in to see them unless you were willing to wait in an impossibly long line at the gates.
That’s not to imply that this century’s premier powerpop supergroup are any less popular now than they ever were, considering that Terminal 5, where they’re playing this April 26 at 9 PM, is the largest Manhattan venue they’ve ever been booked into. It’s likely that a lot of the people who’ve been priced out of Brooklyn and who would have packed that show in the park may come out for this one, for the borderline-obscene advance ticket price of $38. Factored into that, no doubt, is the fact that this is an all-ages show where legal adults will be subsidizing their (officially at least) nondrinking concertmates. Imagine shaggy, tattooed dad and son in matching Beavis and Butthead (or Bevis Frond) shirts.
The group’s new album, Whiteout Conditions is streaming at Spotify. It’s a new wave record, and it’s a good one. There’s a suspiciously satirical edge to the swooshy synths, and crisply danceable beats, and the unease cached rather haphazardly in the lyrics. These songs are amazingly catchy: hooks fly fast and furious, and you can sing along to pretty much everything. What Squeeze was thirty years ago, the New Pornographers are to now. Real estate bubble-era malaise has never been so much fun.
Kathryn Calder sings the careful cadences of the vampy, Head on the Door-era Cure style opening track, Play Money, over a brisk backbeat. There’s a vocoder and pulsing layers of synths:
Just when I’d thought we’d beat the system
That we were gentlemen of leisure
He left to talk about his treasure
And how he’d gotten it for a song…
Carl Newman moves to the mic for the title cut, awash in echoing sequencer beats. It sounds like Big Country without the bombast – ok, that’s a stretch, but just imagine. Mid-80s Wire is also a reference point. It’s an escape anthem, more relevant than ever since January 20.
High Ticket Attraction – how about that title for irony, huh? – looks back to the early 80s, when Bowie glam from ten years earlier was such a big influence. Yuppie entitlement and conspicuous consumption factor into Newman’s torrents of lyrics – the Jigsaw Seen come to mind.
Calder’s sober enunciation in This Is the World of the Theatre, one of the poppiest tracks here, perfectly captures the self-referential preciousness of a generation of gentrifier fauxhemians. The glossy, vamping Darling Shade has a more opaque 80s glossiness: it’s about what happens “When you add your voice to bad choices…when you break through, it’s nothing.”
Second Sleep wafts in with a late-Beatles psychedelic intro, and then the new wave beat kicks in: “This time of the morning you’d swear it was night,” Newman, Calder and Neko Case insist in between short rhyming couplets. “Be awake for awhile” becomes “Been awake for awhile,” after awhile.
Fuzz bass underpins droll, synthesized phony windchimes in Colosseums: “A scalper’s price built into the designs…say it like a soothsayer, it’ll keep for days.” The most overlty political track is the atmospherically swooshy We’ve Been Here Before: “We couldn’t find a way out when were here the first time,” Newman admits. “Might as well leave him behind, might as well leave him behind.”
Juke has a slinky Bollywood psychedelic groove, spun through the eye of a Beatles needle. Case takes over lead vocals on Clock Wise, which maintains the psychedelic ambience. The final cut is the allusively apocalyptic Avalanche Alley, blippy electronic organ flitting through a haze of guitars over a tight 2/4 beat: “News from the last world, news from the future…we could use a ride,” the singers harmonize. As with everything this band has ever done, this album doesn’t just invite repeated listens: it demands them. How rewarding it is to see one of the last successful holdovers from the college-radio-and-cds era still going strong.