In the past, New Pornographers albums, for all their upbeat charm, have been uneven affairs, according to one of the titanic-sized group's songwriters and singers, Carl Newman. "We've been all over the place with our songs," he says with a smile, as he reclines in the office of his New York publicist. "I thought it would be new to try and be more focused. So many records I love do that, like Forever Changes by Love or something by Spoon or the National. I think most bands have a sound they can maintain for 40 minutes and then stop. That felt new to us."
What he came up with was Whiteout Conditions – 11 mostly uplifting three-to-four-minute indie-pop numbers, imbued with lush vocals by himself, Neko Case and Kathryn Calder. He wrote all the songs himself this time, as longtime contributor Dan Bejar chose not to participate on this, the group's seventh LP. Its highlights include the springy "High Ticket Attractions," a rebuke of Trump's vision of America, and the title cut, a New Wave look at depression. To Newman's ears, the songs all feature a propulsive "motorik" beat à la krautrock, but it's hardly noticeable amid the band's signature overwhelming harmonies and ornate rock arrangements.
Here, the singer explains how he and his bandmates made it all work.
This is the first New Pornographers album on which you wrote everything. Were you worried it would become a Carl Newman solo LP?
Not really, because even with me writing the songs, it's still Neko and Kathryn singing on it. If Dan had added three songs to this record, then it would have been this album, plus three songs. In the past, it felt like a weird game, trying to balance all the vocals; like, I can't have two Neko songs back to back. So it made it easier to do the sequencing without having to go, "Where am I going to carefully place three Dan songs within this other thing we made?"
You have six other people in your band. How do you present your songs to them?
I usually won't even have the song finished when I see them. We'll just start recording it and see how it goes from there. I realized at some point that when I bring in songs I think are finished, they are never finished.
Isn't that frustrating for your bandmates?
Maybe to a certain degree. But we're not overly precious about it. I don't mind taking a section and just cutting it. Like, the beginning of the song "Second Sleep" has this weird, ping-pong choral thing that came out of clumsily editing vocals. I was just cutting things up and I thought, "I love this. I love how unnatural it sounds. Let's keep this vibe."
How else did that shake out on this one?
On this album, the song "This Is the World of the Theater" transformed the most into something I really liked. There's a weird guitar figure that runs through it that sounds looped, and that came later; when that went in there, I thought, "Oh, I love this." And there's some fake plucked strings. I wanted the song to have an odd vibe, a singular feel.
You've said you wrote the song "Whiteout Conditions" about a period of depression you were going through. Is that something you've lived with your whole life?
I don't know. Depression and anxiety are weird things. Some part of you wonders if it's just the human condition. When I wrote the song, I was going through a rough thing because my sister was dying of cancer last year. I wrote it a month and a half before she died. So it was situational depression, where you have a tough time dealing. I was trying to get out of a space where I was thinking, "I should be sad, but I shouldn't be quite this sad. I shouldn't let things get to me where it's making me incapable of seeing the world for what it is, which is not a horrible, tragic place." That's what the song is about.
You sometimes write music to protect yourself in the same way people listen to music, because it takes you away from who you are.
But depression and grieving are two different things.
Yeah, they definitely are. That's what you realize. You often don't know what a normal amount of sadness is. It's actually a great moment to realize, "Wait a minute, maybe I can do something about this. Maybe this is not how people should feel and maybe it's easy for me to talk about it, because it hasn't destroyed my life." Some part of me thinks I got off lucky, because I can talk about it. I can say, "Yeah, I had trouble with depression and anxiety."
When I think about other people's stories, I think it could see it being a nightmare. I would rather somebody run me over with a car than to be locked in a pit of depression for six months. If what I felt in my life is totally mild, I understand why people just kill themselves to get out of it. That's also one of the reasons why I feel like talking about it. If somebody hears me talking about it, they may feel less alone.
It seems like the dialogue about mental health is still evolving. People are talking about these feelings more.
Yeah, and it's easy because I feel like I feel happy.
You've also made a generally happy-sounding record.
Yeah, my whole career has been trying to take some sad feeling and turning it into something positive. Not even something sad, but some feeling of hopeless anxiousness. All of our albums have that pattern: The music is very upbeat but the lyrics are bittersweet or cynical or negative.
Speaking of, you wrote "High Ticket Attractions" watching the Trump campaign last year. Now that he's the president, what are your feelings about that song?
It feels like the same thing. There's a thing in the chorus about how this could go two ways. Things could go terribly awry or things could be all right. I think a lot of the song is about things going wrong, like climate change and how I feel we're moving in a direction like we're going the way of the Mayans.
I was hoping it wasn't going to happen, but I think I was already beginning to accept it. I figured, even if he lost, he's still brought out something terrible in America. Even if Hillary won, what were all these hardcore, insane Trump people going to do? He was fomenting dissent: "If I lose, it's because it was stolen." I was thinking then that it things felt bad and I don't want it to get any worse than this. And here we are now.