The New Pornographers’ “Whiteout Conditions” and my interpretation thereof.

So far I’ve refrained from writing ‘reviews’ of albums or other music or bands to this extent. I’ve written an awful lot about music, of course, (well, mostly my own, see every other blog post) and its interpretation and/or effect, but here I’m gonna just tackle one album like a rock critic, or some idea of what a rock critic could be.

The New Pornographers are a popular pop-rock band who’ve been around for about 20 years, formed from the ashes of other popular pop-rock bands. I’ve been a fan since they started. They’re kind of a supergroup, with most of the members having solo careers or other bands as well. I am a huge fan of the NP—I love a good hook in my pop music, especially when it’s combined with cool lyrics and executed with superlative musicianship and a beautiful array of tones in the recordings. These guys have pretty much consistently provided pleasure to my ears with every album release. Oddly, I have never seen them play live, though that will change this weekend, when we go to see them at Debaser Strand in Stockholm.

I also don’t know them personally, though I met Neko Case (one of the singers) when she played with her own band at our Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven Camp Out Festival, probably about a decade ago? (I can’t exactly remember.) I tried to give her one of my poppier CDs, “Edgy Not Antsy” (2003) in hopes of eliciting some sort of camaraderie on the pop rock end of being a rock band person, but to be honest I have no idea if she even took it with her when they left. At some point on tour in Boise, ID, several years later we did cross paths with the NP, as their tour bus rolled up the the Super 8 as we were leaving, though I only ended up talking with the drummer for a bit to find out what band it was, when A.C. Newman (main singer/songwriter) got off the bus, it was pretty obvious he wasn’t interested in human interaction that morning.

So, they have a new album. They’ve had new albums before, of course, but I’m finding this one to be particularly thrilling. For one thing, it’s *all* A.C. Newman-penned songs, none by Dan Bejar who was off working on his own band, Destroyer, apparently. (Or not, who knows. Their press is obviously contrived, as I will get into more later.) They’ve settled into this style that uses sequenced synthesizers with the normal retinue of guitars and synths (and bass and drums and lots of singing). The result, after an obvious learning curve on their last album, “Brill Bruisers”, is so well-honed now, and so extremely pleasing to hear with your earholes, clocked soft and hard sounds pulsating and phasing through the stereo space. The singing is still incredible, with Neko, A.C. (Carl, I guess? I don’t know him well enough to know which to refer to him as) and Kathryn Calder doing multiple interconnected parts, and without having Bejar’s sneering Hunky-Doryisms, it works much better as a whole album. But here’s the thing: the lyrics are genius. They’re just oblique enough to give a listener some words to work information out of while providing some keywords with obvious dramatic effect, while simultaneously being full of fanciness: rhythmic alliterations, internal and external rhyme schemes, smart word combinations, etc, all accented by the co-lead singer duties within any particular track. Where Bejar’s lyrics always seemed to hinge upon him finding some witty-sounding phrase (like “myriad harbor” or some thing,) Newman’s are actually clever. Or even smart. Even if neither you nor I know exactly what he’s singing about

So what is he singing about? I personally love lyrical puzzles, and the poetry of fancy wordplay, so as the melodic hooks started seeping into my brain, the pop music virus that repeats itself in your ear forcing you to listen again and again until it finally burns that earworm out, I started delving more into the lyrics. The online sites suck, many were simply plain wrong, had entirely wrong lyrics listed. Admittedly, it’s tough to understand them all (as words let alone as meaning,) but I think some of the lyrics sites use some stupid AI transcription software to get lyrics to new albums, or it seems so. This site, genius.com, seemed to be mostly correct.

And here’s what I think: This is a meta-album. It’s an album of songs about an album of songs about playing music about the music industry and being a lead singer in a popular pop-rock band therein. Now that’s my take on this, and of course, not knowing these people personally, perhaps I’m projecting my own experience on this interpretation (as one does) and reading into it everything about the music industry and being a songwriter and whatnot. Perhaps that’s one reason I like the album so much. But let me clarify my conclusions a bit, and then I’ll admit to also seeing Illuminati references everywhere, or whatever psychotic pattern-recognition thing you, the readers, might attribute this interpretation to.

Again, I love lyrics, I love interpreting them, and on some level that’s what songs are about: the interpretation in the mind of the listener. I have no idea if any of this has anything to do with what the songwriter(s) were thinking, and that doesn’t really matter. It’s not quite like trying to interpret Yes lyrics (I didn’t want to know, for instance, that “giant flying purple wolfhounds” was actually a reference to a military plane, nor that mountains coming out of the sky and standing there was just cuz Jon Anderson was stoned in the tour van in Scotland.) Nor is it important to know the writer’s intent, really. What if that love song you love is about a taking a nice dump?

Here’s one thing to keep in mind, though: nobody talks about this, the meaning of the songs. On the New Pornographers’ website, everything just says “Whiteout Conditions” is out and the band is touring. If you go to the band history tab, it only says who plays in the band and then has some press quotes about how the record sounds. In fact, even the quotes from Mr Newman are about instituting some idea of Krautrock into their sound, somehow riding the “new motorik” wave of popularity (there’s a lot of it going around) and how it doesn’t sound like Krautrock even so. Well, you know, the Buzzcocks and the Jam said the same thing, just FYI. (Well, so has everybody.) Reviews I’ve read, NPR, PopMatters, No Recess, etc. all seem to focus on the sound of the album more than what it says. I think that’s common, in general, in rock criticism nowadays. That’s all people need to know, really! That’s why we stylize genre descriptors in press releases, so that the reviewer knows what kind of music this is! Even way back when I once wrote album reviews for Puncture Magazine, I ended up not knowing what to say about music at times and just described the physical music, that is to say, how the chords and melodies were put together, what kinds of sounds were used.

And many people say they don’t even listen to the lyrics. Personally, lyrics are extremely important to me, to the point where they can make or break a song for me. I remember being really into the Smashing Pumpkins “Siamese Dream” when hearing it on the jukebox at the bar I worked at, and then one day reading the lyrics. On the other hand, I have always loved Scott Miller’s lyrics/melodies/music through Game Theory and into Loud Family, and his way of manufacturing lyric was, similar to Newman’s, ornate yet oblique, playing with words and sounds and language until it could say several things at once, lyrical depth which combines the art and the craftsmanship of poetry with a hooky melody. (A.C. Newman also wrote about being a fan of Scott’s after his (Scott’s) death a few years back.) Cagey lyrics are of course also a way to hide, where you don’t have to reveal everything about your trip in some obvious verbal way. You can be humorous and deceptive about, say, depression or other mental illness, or develop your own code for things that are meaningful but potentially embarrassing for yourself. I mean, I write that way, always have. I tried for a while (starting maybe with Jack & Jill) to be purposefully more direct, but I’ve crept sideways from there. like a crab, right.

Neko Case and A.C. both are indirect lyricists, which I personally love. Neither say things directly. Case seems to paint verbal pictures that you fill in to understand the story at hand. Newman is more a player with the sounds of the words. While I love to think of the person singing the songs as the writer of the words that they sing, and I would love to think of each singer on this album as the lyricist, the liner notes do state that all of it is written by Newman.

So what does A.C. Newman have to say?

The album starts with the song “Play Money,” which of course is not about fake play money (so much as maybe the fakeness of money—when you have it, that is) but about playing music for money. The song seems so end-of-tour to me that I automatically adjust into that mindset when I hear the starting pulsation. “I only play for money, honey. Look at what this run has done to me.”

I only play for money, honey
Look at what this run has done to me
It has me gunning for the country
Sky's memory and moonless
A vision copied from the bootlegs
We are out of tune so mostly tuneless

For a fee I'll fight any foe
For a fee I'll take any blow

I only play it cool and bruising
But only when my lips are moving
You've been careful here to keep the tempo
Only play with money, careful
Not to trigger some reversal
And to live by an obscure example

For a fee I'll fight any foe
For a fee I'll stop any show

I know -- have an eye on you to get this right
Have an eye on you to climb these heights
Have an eye on you--oops, pay-per-view

I beat the path of least resistance
Over the hills and out of wisdom
And just when I thought we beat the system
I knew a gentleman of leisure
He loved to talk about his treasure
And of how he got it for a song, song, song, song

For a fee I'll right any wrong
For a fee I'll right any wrong
For a fee I'll fight any foe
For a fee I'll stop any show

I know -- have an eye on you to get this right
Have an eye on you to climb these heights
Have an eye on you--oops, pay-per-view
Have an eye on you to get this right
Have an eye on you to climb these heights
Have an eye on you--oops, pay-per-view

Only live for happy endings
Stop them like we started
Pardon my affinity for clothes and Clueless
Never been an opportunist
I accept the prize if I somehow surprise us all 
and get there soonest

I only play for money, honey
I only play with money, honey
I only play with money, honey
I only play with money, honey

The song (the song)

…I don’t exactly know what “gunning for the country” means (beside being a nice homophonic slant rhyme) though I take it as “I need to get the fuck out and head out to the country where there aren’t so many fucking people.” Though of course, it could be something patriotic and weaponized, who knows. But they continue about the quality of what they do in playing music live, a vision copied from the bootlegs, out of tune, etc.. Then they equate to the mercenary: for a fee I’ll fight any foe. Fum, goes the guitar, fum as Jack’s giant would add to the end of that phrase, fee fie foe fum in a lovely syncope rhythm of labial fricatives (distorted, actually. The mixing/mastering has bandpassed many of the consonants on this album to a discreet upper-midrange/lower-highend  that is pushed and compressed to be almost like a percussion instrument. Useful when you’re using the vocal fricatives to propel the otherwise-clocked rhythm.)

Nor do I really get “only play it cool and bruising” except that it’s obviously cool, and perhaps a reference to Brill Bruisers,  the lead track on their previous album of the same name. “Only when my lips are moving” is the joke, you know, about when a lawyer is lying. So the focus is maybe moving off the performers… For a fee I’ll stop any show. Again, probably an internal band reference to “All the Old Showstoppers,” another song about fame-versus-numbers. As would be the outro “the song (the song)” which itself is a repeat of their first “hit”, “Letter from an Occupant” from 2000. So they are talking about playing “the song” (“that’s shakin’ me”) that makes them famous enough to tour and play “the song”. And then, just when they think they beat the system, they meet the “gentleman of leisure” who got his treasure for “a song, song, song, song, song”. Obviously Jack, who ended up with the giant’s goose that laid the golden egg. Fee fie foe fum. Who are those guys that are rich from “the song”? Well, nobody in our day and age, it’s sort of an outdated occupation for songwriters, that’s for sure. So possibly some Geffen-type industry person. Or like, led zeppelin, “over the hills.” Or more likely more the Westergren or Ek type these days. And what does that mean? All your work is for naught, peon. You’re just the music maker. You may think you can get ahead in this music biz, you’re doing so well, aren’t you? “Have an eye on you.”

Is the song itself the golden egg? Is Newman himself the goose? NP refer to “The Song” a lot, I think it’s more like the Platonic ideal. The song referred to is “the song”, the one that works, the one that catapults the band, but also the one that is the creation that they make, the one that is the craft that they work.

(As an aside, I wonder if the band makes money, actually. New Pornographers, I mean. You’d think so, right? They’re famous and great and everybody knows them. They tour all over the world. I imagine that having a couple songs in TV commercials did well for them, but I sort of think that even at their level, admittedly above mine, though I play similar sized places with Camper Van Beethoven, CVB doesn’t have the pop draw nor radio love that NP do nor tour as much. And I don’t make money. So it’s possible that they do, though again, I’m betting it’s all in sync fees and not in record sales nor touring. I mean, we’re going to see them at Debaser Strand this weekend, that’s a 8 hour tour bus drive from Oslo to fill a 300-person place. )

I only play for money, honey. I only play with money.

Title track is next, Whiteout Conditions.

Flying and feeling the ceiling
I'm barely dealing
And the faces, the faintest of praises
Are too revealing
Such a waste of a beautiful day
Someone should say
It's such a waste of the only impossible, logical way in

A fly-in in LA was open
I wasn't hoping for a win
I was hoping for freedom
You couldn't beat 'em
So you crumbled, you doubled your dosage
you wanna go, said the inhibitor blocking the passage, 
that thing is massive

And the sky will come for you once
Just sit tight until it's done
The sky will come for you once
Just sit tight until it's done

Got so hooked on a feeling
I started dealing
in a stage of grief so demanding
I got a stand-in
Every radio buzzing, it wasn't the dream of the moment
Wasn't the current that carried me, keeping me going

Only want to get to work
But every morning I'm too sick to drive
Suffering whiteout conditions
Forget the mission, just get out alive

Only want to glean the purpose
Only to scratch the surface, raise the plow
Suffering whiteout conditions
Forget your mission, just get out somehow

Everyone suddenly busy
Suddenly dizzy
You're so easy, it's pushing you over
You're taking tours
Of a treacherous strip of the badlands
You have your demands
Maybe you riot for nothing - it's just a bad hand

Only want to get to work
But every morning I'm too sick to drive
Suffering whiteout conditions
Forget the mission, just get out alive
Only want to glean the purpose
Only to scratch the surface, raise the plow
Suffering whiteout conditions
Forget your mission, just get out somehow

Flying and flat on the ceiling
I see myself
And the revival, it suddenly hits me
It's going viral
Such a waste of a beautiful day
Someone should say
It's such a waste of the only impossible, logical way in

Got so hooked on a feeling
I started dealing
But the days spent kicking the cages
Are too revealing
So committed to your misfortune
But still a cheater
Such a waste of a beautiful day
Wish you could be here

So this could be about many things, but obviously the gist is trying to deal with life. On meds, or drugs, or something. Maybe a migraine. It’s a funny combo of drug lingo and med lingo, though, the first great hook that caught me on this record is the incredibly funny “got so hooked on a feeling, I started dealing”, which, given that it’s been nearly 50 years since “Hooked on a Feeling” came out, I was shocked nobody wrote this before. But it’s so funny to reference a hit song when (ostensibly) talking about being a musician hooked on music and starting to “deal” it like a pusher. And later “kicking” the cages, he says, and days spent doing that are too revealing.

The opening verse seems just like trying to deal while either taking your brain meds or forgetting to take your brain meds (says I who takes brain meds.) What pushes me toward this conclusion is not just the language of “inhibitor blocking the passage” etc, but the whole flying/ceiling/barely dealing + dizzy/buzzing stuff that goes into the existentialism of “such a waste of a beautiful day” and “waste of the only impossible, logical way in”. I have no idea what the only impossible logical way in is. But it’s big, it’s the only impossible logical way in, after all. So are “whiteout conditions” caused by drug-drugs? Or your prescription? Impossible to know, but “only want to get to work but in the morning I’m too sick to drive”, yeah. “Forget your mission, just get out alive” —been there! Maybe it’s just an ocular migraine, a scintillating scotoma (been there too…)

The sky will come for you once? I dunno. Maybe that’s his personal experience of the scotoma or the crash itself. Or something, anyway.

But I hear a familiar depression-vesus-meds in this one. (Meds being whatever medication is needed, pills or booze or whatever.) In all these lines. And like he says, maybe you riot for nothing, it’s just a bad hand. I think Scott Miller wrote an awful lot about depression and dealing (with himself, with people, with music “business”) in a similar way, that is to say: cloaked in artifice. And later it got the best of him. I do it too, I think that writing this way, circumloquatiously, is a way to mask it, to try to save some of the embarrassment that one feels in admitting to the world around you that you are depressed, or manic, or mental in some way. I have no doubts that Mr Newman is a hyper intelligent person, (given only these songs as evidence, yeah) and I do know that that makes things difficult when it comes to either fitting in, or being who your handlers want you to be if you are the cash cow. I mean, I play in a band with David Lowery. Lowery ends up mostly writing in characters that he assumes the identity of. It’s possible that Newman does too, but I hear it as personal, especially here. I think the “you” at the end, so committed to your misfortune but still a cheater” is himself. “Wish you could be here.”

The single is next, “High Ticket Attractions.”

You can imagine all the factions
That form around high ticket attractions
High on the spirit, hopped up and mystic
After the flame baptism you’re fearless
You know the science of falling
You have your calling
You know the song

The Magna Carta, it’s underwater
We left it there for the sons and the daughters
One day they’ll find it; they’ll be reminded
When we live undersea like we ought to
Didn’t know flying from falling
Clueless the poor thing
Sad to report
Didn’t know losing from learning
Wheels were turning
You know the song

This thing could go two ways
(Won’t be another exit for days)
So pack a small suitcase
(Anything else can be easily replaced)

You feel the suction, the call to action
That will surround high ticket attractions
You want to travel, want to unravel
Take the experience to the next level
With no respect for the warning
The violence of yearning
Defiance of learning
In protected encryption
The voice of addiction
You know the song

This thing could go two ways
(Won’t be another exit for days)
So pack a small suitcase
(Anything else can be easily replaced)

You know the song
You know the song
You know the song
You know the song

You can imagine all the factions
That form around high ticket attractions
Just like the Mayans took all their science
And dumped it all in the drink and went silent
They knew the science of falling
They had their calling
You know the song

This thing could go two ways
(Won’t be another exit for days)
So pack a small suitcase
(Anything else can be easily replaced)

This thing could go two ways
(Won’t be another exit for days)
So pack a small suitcase
(Anything else can be easily replaced)

This one seems to be about, yes, high ticket attractions, those high-money touring artists. You know the song. And you can imagine the hangers-on. And trying to keep up with it on tour. Perhaps it’s about a specific diva, but I’d guess not. Also, it has that weird “vision of the world of the high class” thing that many other NP songs of the past have, implications of hanging out with the ultra-rich or upperclass, or royalty. I never really got that, even if I liked the songs that had those things in them, I never understood if it was supposed to be literal or not. Maybe the guy does hang out with countesses, I don’t know. (My brain went immediately to “I am the Countess,” My Little Pony’s take on Gaga.) I mean they went with mermaids, right?

You know the song. The suction that is felt is the pull from the buyers; to sell records, you have to create suction at the public end to pull them to the stores. And the suction of charisma, of famous personages, you’ll just do it. And the suction that is just plain old sucking. Here’s another reference to “Clueless” as well, which may be a pet phrase or maybe he’s really into the Alicia Silverstone coming-of-age movie, I don’t know. (I haven’t seen it.) I think either is possible.

Why is this the single? I have no idea. It’s a song about fame. About famous songs and the mad practice of presenting them in public. Again, songs about the business of music. Maybe the reason for it being the single is magic, it’s a spell to invoke fame by singing about it. But then there’s the video, which is horrific. I won’t include a link, you can look it up if you want. It’s the epitome of stupid, has nothing to do with the lyrics, it’s a slow-mo, hi-res high school riot that starts off with the male and female models pretending to be high school students in a fake chemistry classroom start teasing each other. It’s so slick and crass that it’s disgusting. Maybe that’s what you get when your band is from Vancouver instead of LA, you get something like the cast of The 100 faking being young and hot and ritualistically destroying their very own Riverdale High like true rebellious teens would if they could. Icky, for so many reasons, not just overblown production values. But, possibly it will get the band exactly what they want in an audience?

(And then, there’s also this video for the song, which I think is really cool.)

But, you know, “This is the World of the Theatre.”

Since they've come, I've tried to go it straight, 
but I've got no clue how to
Was gonna make it up just now, 
try to come up with some high-brow move
Kid gloves, and stranger loves you've known,
you sort it out somehow
You used to chime in quietly, you sing, but you're a moaner now
Think of all the life we're saving
Think of all the legs we're breaking

Is it too late to live in your heart, too late to burn all your civilian clothes
As you break into a million parts, too late to learn it 
yes we're all elbows

Conquerors of the daybreak
Conquerors of the daybreak
This is the world of the theatre
This is the world of the theatre

All the phantom minor notes they pass you on your way to dine
They call you from their hiding places on 
the shoulders of your chimes
Think of all the cold they're braving
Think of all the ways we'll cave in

Is it too late to live in your heart, too late to burn all your civilian clothes
As you break into a million parts, too late to learn it -- will it come to blows?

Conquerors of the daybreak
Conquerors of the daybreak

This is the world of the theatre
This is the world of the theatre
Is it too late to live in your heart, too late to burn all your civilian clothes
As you break into a million parts, too late to learn it, yes we're all elbows

Conquerors of the daybreak
Conquerors of the daybreak
Conquerors of the daybreak
Conquerors of the daybreak

This is the world of the theatre
This is the world of the theatre

Yes, indeed, it’s all theatre. You’re in SHOW biz. But it’s so important, isn’t it? Think of all the lives we’re saving. But are you yourself? Who is yourself? Can you be yourself when you are acting? I once tried to piss off some actor friends of mine when I lived in LA by going on a rant about how all actors were basically lying, never being true to who they were. It was funny at the time. Recently I’ve been in more discussions about what people represent when they’re on stage, if indeed a person can be “who they are” when they are performing. It just makes me hate politicians even more, why I would rather read politics and platforms than hear any politician speak.

I do like the referred-to phrases, though: think of all the cold they’re braving.

I do appreciate the military jargon of burning all your civilian clothes (no, forget your mission, just get out alive.) As a member of a touring band, everybody outside the world of the tour is indeed a civilian. It’s a natural way to see things. But here, giving up your identity as a civilian is predicated on “living in your heart”, i.e. secretly being yourself in the face of facade.

This also was an early adoptee song for me on this album, which started me looking for the lyrics online—and finding some incredible mishearings. Check out this take on these lyrics: Cockle, reese and poutine break? Yeah! They are Canadians after all. Yes, we’re on a boat.

Next is Darling Shade, our shadow.

When you add your voice to bad choices
Then your noise so white becomes [melted]?
It's dripping down the walls like quicksilver
Dripping down [as] slowly [as sabbath]?

And for you: the Pulitzer Prize
For stepping into traffic
Now the new: the Americas
You broke through, you're laughing

We have found a use for the profane
Searching for the gods in the corners
With the ignorance of the poet
An unbreakable focus of mortars

Darling shade our shadow
Darling shade our shadow

Was a [singer] from the bad choices
On a [sayer] without a pretense
When you give your mind to your voices
You accept the terms of your sentence

And for you: the Pulitzer Prize
For time served, you're walking
Now the new: the Americas
You broke through, it's nothing

Darling shade our shadow
Darling shade our shadow

You began to climb the new tower
Thinking you could learn a new language
That you would return a few favors
Since you left everybody hanging

Darling shade our shadow
Darling shade our shadow
Darling shade our shadow
Darling shade our shadow

Shadowed by an underworld figure? Or journalist…? Well, the music biz is infested with shades, it’s true. Darling Shade seems more like a character from a Bowie song, even with Dan Bejar not taking part in this album. Maybe the song is about him! More likely it’s singing “you” to yourself again. You broke through, it’s nothing. More military imagery (focus of mortars) and music biz cliches like the break through. But Darling Shade left everybody hanging in the end.

Second Sleep

Been awake for awhile
Going deep, going long
Rifling through what I keep

In the floats, what we found
Under glass, all the hours
Filled with Hail Mary passes
It all sort of fastens to you
As you sleep

Been awake, thinking fast, cannot sleep
Second thoughts, second rate Socrates
At dream's door, feeling flat, searching high
Left outside, like a vampire in light

At this time of the morning you'd swear it was night
It's enough living proof of the use of lights on (lights on)

Been awake for awhile

Somebody on a lyric site wrote that this was a reference to the thing going around a couple years ago about polyphasic sleep, how everybody “used to sleep two times a night, separated by a period of wakefulness in the middle of the night.” There are numerous examples in old literature, but I have to say that I always thought that this phenomenon probably had more to do with the fact that people used to drink all day, so they probably woke up after a few hours of sleep when the alcohol was detoxified in their system. This song seems more like normal (“normal”) insomnia, especially the fast thoughts and rifling through “what I keep” and “hours filled with Hail Mary passes.” Lord knows I understand that, I wrote a bunch about sleep and the lack thereof on my latest album as well. Again, though, it could also be the meds. But I bet that doesn’t account for the cool rhythms of the sung consonants. Again distorted, but cool word-cuts like ‘like a vam/pire in night’ in great rhythm.

The next track is my current favorite, “Colosseums”. Obvious, perhaps, in the context of rock music, stadium rock is really its own thing. Although probably dominated these days by country or pop stars, I tend to envision U2 or Coldplay: some crap fake-emotive singer with soaring anthems banking on the fact that the space the noise fills appears to add profundity. A Second rate Socrates could really sound wise here.

Colosseums, colosseums of the mind
An ancient con, the shadow of a song
Exhibitions, international in size
I close my eyes, I can see the lion

Colosseums, colosseums of the mind
Right on time, celebration in the ruin
Elation is moving in a wave
I avert my gaze, but still I see the lions

Say it like a soothsayer
On repeat for days
Don’t listen when the fool says
You can’t fool your way
You can’t fool your way

Colosseums, colosseums of the mind
A scalper's price, built into the design
Jubilations, laughing out the place
Look in my face, you can see the lion

Say it like a soothsayer
It will keep for days
Don’t listen when the fool says
You can’t fool your way
You can’t fool your way

Say it like a soothsayer
On repeat for days
Don’t listen when the fool says
You can’t fool your way

Say it like a soothsayer
It will keep for days
Don’t listen when the fool says
You can’t fool your way
You can’t fool your way

Here, he’s using the extended metaphor of the Roman colosseum and the whole bread-and-circus spectacle of lions eating Christians to rock it out. Complete with the entrance of the marimbas in the intro, the rattling bones (like on XTC’s “Poor Skeleton Steps Out,” though I got the impression that Paul Fox had no ideas of his own when producing “Oranges and Lemons” back in 1989 so he dug up their earlier albums’ production for ideas and settled on “It’s Nearly Africa” for this one.)

Right off the bat, we know that the spectacle can’t present the real, “an ancient con, the shadow of a song”. You can’t even play the damn song in a stadium, the size makes it into something else. (“The Song”, I mean. The ideation of “song”. The artifact of “song”. The [second rate] Platonic ideal of “The Song”.) The colosseum is huge, and its size is in your mind. The singer singing the song here is singing it in the colosseum, and closing his eyes, he sees the lions. Because that’s what the audience really wants, anyway, isn’t it?

This is also the first song with a lyrical twist, finally. Even after the second verse’s celebration in the ruin, averting his gaze he still sees the lion, but in the critical third verse we look in his face and can see the lion, he has become the lion in the colosseum.

Say it like a soothsayer, a nice alliteration, indicating the methods of sounding prophetic or holy in the colosseum. I still think of Bono here, even though the advice is obviously to oneself in the context of the song. Fake it big. Don’t listen when the fool says you can’t fool your way, because obviously (if Bono, for example, is any indication) you can. Say it like a soothsayer, on repeat for days, (“keep for days”? I hear “it will hold their gaze”, that is, if you can say it like a soothsayer, it commands the attention of the audience. Which is what you want, if you’re soothsaying.)

I would love to hear them perform this song in a colosseum!

…but. We’ve Been Here Before

Here is the quick rundown
We've been here before
It's best not to wander far
'Cause we've been here before
We couldn't find a way out
When we were here, the first time
Now it's mines we're leaving behind
Mines we're leaving behind

Didn't choose what we mean
Just hummed along with what's played
There were rules once back when
There should be rules again

Here is the quick rundown
We've been here before
It's best not to wander far
'Cause we've been here before
And we couldn't find a way out
When we were here, the first time
Now it's mines we're leaving behind
Mines we're leaving behind

And oh, to leave them behind
And gold to trade for my life
Where we end up again
The gods of bad parties reign
Chased by invasion lights
Round the same block again

So here is the quick rundown
We've been here before
It's best not to wander far
'Cause we've been here before
And we couldn't find a way out
When we were here the first time
Now it's mines we're leaving behind
Mines we're leaving behind

We've been here before

We didn’t choose what we mean, just hummed along… well, you gotta choose it now. Even if you’re stuck in some labyrinth of post-colosseum after-show parties, which sadly end up with you as the semi-famous reigning god. I’ve seen it a few times. Unfortunately. What a sad state, and I can see how after catching yourself there once, you’d wish for the gold to trade to get your life back.

But, ignoring for a moment the paradox of “if you couldn’t find your way out the first time you were there,” how could you be stuck a second time, and moving on to leaving and leaving behind mines… So, mines that destroy that entire scene? Impossible. I suppose you could leave mines that destroy your own credibility as reigning god so that you could never reliably find yourself accidentally falling into that labyrinth again. Redefine yourself and your persona.

“Juke” is the next track. I only know the word in the context of the jukebox, I assume it meant a kind of dancing. I looked it up and found that it’s a word for a quick fake, or a quick move to fake you out (or a stabbing!) and probably that quick fake move is why it got associated with dancing. Probably a Gullah/West-African based word meaning bad or disorderly. However, I have certainly never heard it used as it is here, “Juke you.” Though followed by “feels like the dawn took you out” may be a continuation of the last bad party.

Been through here, crystal ball
You crashed, shattered into [songs?] above you
There are rules here, into shapes
You can, can and so you will surrender

Juke you (Feels like the dawn took you out)

You pass through here, on the way, to call
Call to tell us, 'Stop. Surrender.'
Some of you fear it has come to pass
At last, last September, what? you lost me

Juke you (Feels like the dawn took you out)
Took you out

I been through here, some of you can run
Underneath the world beyond earth
Been through here, crystal ball
You crashed, shattered into souls above you

Some of you
Some of you get life
Some of you
Some of you get Lifetime
Some of you
Some of you will run
Some of you
Some will feel the strange cold
[?]
Some of you will run
Be [accused?]
Some will take a lifetime

Juke you (Feels like the dawn took you out)
Took you out

Juke you

It may be like a continuation of being here before, what with the crystal ball and talking about rules. I don’t know, I don’t get this one, I think. Some of you get life may refer to the poor idiots sentenced to life in the stupid scene, though, “some of you get Lifetime,” like the cable channel? I guess some of you do. Or maybe some people “get” Lifetime, I sure don’t. I don’t really get life, for the most part. Some of you will run. Indeed. Juke you. Whatever that means, you got faked out?

Next, we move another step clockwise in the story of the dealing with the life of being a singer of songs in a business of selling songs and singers.

Clockwise

We were not quite young when you called it clockwise
Go unchallenged in the light of the life
In the struggle to rule the second string
In the valley of the middle fingers
In the valley of lead singers

We are not quite done you could call it clockwise
Power surges and the backups are fried
We are live [with 'we brought from the blue'?]
In the hopeful haunts of all your dead ringers
In the valley of lead singers
In the hopeful haunts of all your dead ringers
In the valley of lead singers

We were not quite done, yeah, you called it clockwise
Hold the looking glass up to your eyes
See The Saviors are still asleep in the men's
See invaders that look like their dead ringers
In the valley of lead singers
In the hopeful haunts of all your dead ringers
In the valley of lead singers

Low
Life
Low
Low Life

We were not quite fun, you could call it clockwise
Allow me here to accept the demise
Accept it proudly on your behalf
As you oversteer -- every star turn in here
In the valley of lead singers
In the hopeful haunts of all your dead ringers
In the valley of lead singers

As he says, struggling to rule the not-quite-top level, the second string of players in a valley of lead singers and their dead ringers. Replaceable, easily. A valley of middle fingers, enough and we could have ringers sent in from the coast in a heartbeat, to quote Buddy Rich. I guess if this album is a “rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust” sort of story, this is the downfall, not exactly fatal except to one’s career. The path of the lead singer is from star to low life when they aren’t revered anymore. Awesome synth tones moving around in there, though.

For an album that is touted as being some pop interpretation of krautrock, there is surprisingly little Neu in here, but in the final track, Avalanche Alley, we finally get the full Für Immer beat promised at the beginning of the album in “Play Money”.

Cover your eyes, surprise your fate
It's only an avalanche away, you're safe
It's only a scratch, you're great
Several years after the flood
Your singularity under the gun
So late, so late to the game, so late
We thought it was wise to wait

Sent you blues from the last world
News from the future
Blues from the last world
News from the future

Several miles behind the wave
We needed to cross the ocean, we missed the ride
Lord knows we could use a ride
You summon the breath to finally say
It's only an avalanche away, feels right
And you can stay here tonight
Yeah, you can stay here tonight

Sent you blues from the last world
News from the future
Blues from the last world
News from the future

Better angels formed the cottage industry
The testimonials, warning weather
Rules of the house
Are all graffiti scrawled
Ceremony calls, the tarred and feathered
Jewels in your crown
Are loud and proudly fake
Ceremony calls, the overthrowing
Consigned to the dustbin, all good lines thrown away
Defined by the daylight waves we found in Avalanche Alley
Controlled demolitions of the times far away
In line for the festival that we call Avalanche Alley

News from the last world
News from the future
News from the last world
News from the future

It’s definitely tough to interpret this as a song, let alone as the closing track of the meta-album about itself in its own context. The titular avalanche could be the one that brings the singer to stardom, though it could be the one that wipes them out. I think hanging out in the festival called Avalanche Alley makes it more like they’d be waiting to regain that feeling of importance that comes with being a big shot on stage, that same feeling that they were so tired of at the play money beginning. This alley is next door to the valley of lead singers, I’d guess. But if the industry machine has abandoned you, maybe the cottage industry might help build you back up again, even if you’re faking the content. These lines seem like they have some specific reference (to the singer) that isn’t obvious or known to me as a listener. That’s ok, of course. It is definitely a bad thought to feel that you have been consigned to the dustbin of history, as Trotsky said, with all your good lines thrown away. I have no reference point for the “daylight waves” that define these lines. Maybe that goes with either that it’s the Kurzweil singularity he’s talking about and it’s not coming fast enough or that they “missed the ride” offworld, I mean who knows.

And the important thing here seems to be the sending of news from the future. Or the blues/news from the last world? So long as there’s something new in the damn future and not this same old shit (I don’t mean that about the album, I mean in a more universal sense). It sure is a hopeful sounding chorus, especially as the final track in the sequence.

So anyway, there you have it. I didn’t even mention how incredibly pleasurable the sounds on this album are with the ‘motorik’ beats, combos of beautifully squishy synthesizers with the pseudo-techno sequencing mixing effortlessly with a human drummer and bassist and the jangly power pop guitars. Currently it’s worming its way through my cochleae and it won’t let go.

And I concede that everything I’ve written here may be entire bullshit, of course. And don’t tell Mr Newman that I wrote this.

Whiteout

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Posted in Music, Touring
6 comments on “The New Pornographers’ “Whiteout Conditions” and my interpretation thereof.
  1. Mark says:

    Wow that’s quite a review. I think the lyrics & music on your next album should be about The New Pornographers WHITEOUT CONDITIONS. A band should be so lucky.

  2. This was a great read. Are we sure that, in “World of the Theatre,” the line is “Think of all the waves we’re breaking?” I had heard it as “Think of all the legs we’re breaking,” which I thought was a much funnier and cooler line, since “break a leg” is the ubiquitous good luck wish in the theatre, and following “Think of all the lives we’re saving” with something about breaking legs strikes me as a funny gag. Anyway, it’s very interesting to hear your take on this great album which will affect the way I listen to it again, to see A.C. Newman’s lyrics treated with respect, and to have someone whose own music I have loved a lot over the last few decades reflect on the work of another favorite. Thank you!

    • You’re probably right on the lyric. That must be it, makes much more sense. Thank you!

      Also it’s a alliterative rhyme with ‘lives we’re saving’, ‘legs we’re breaking’.

  3. Kevin Seal says:

    I love love love this. And I’m a huge New Pornographers fan as well. The meta-album concept hadn’t occurred to me, but damn this makes a great deal of sense. I got to interview A.C. Newman once, a preview for his solo show at Noise Pop, and it turns out that he is an avid Roberto Bolaño fan.

  4. A friend said that last night when they played in London, Newman said that “High Ticket Attractions” about Trump and politics, so I’m obviously off on some of my interpretation here!

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