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The One New Album to Care About This Week: Caroline Polachek’s ‘Pang’

In the first of our Weekly Review series, we survey the ex-Chairlift singer's alt-pop vision. Get ready to cry on the dance floor (or at home).

by Ryan Bassil
18 October 2019, 8:45am

JRR Tolkien was wrong about the most beautiful phrase in the English language. Well, first, he didn't actually pick just one. Drew Barrymore’s character Donnie Darko misquoted a 1950s lecture of his, where he'd said: "Most English-speaking people…will admit that cellar door is 'beautiful', especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling)." And when said out loud, sure, it sounds very pleasant. But for beauty in meaning, it’s nothing like “pang”. As a description of sharp influxes of longing, pain, guilt and all those other physically consuming feelings, “pang” manages to be a delightfully pretty word with emotionally weighted connotation. Crushing on someone? Pang. Longing for a text? Pang! Feeling sad? Pang pang pang!

To better experience the jittering highs and numbing lows of such a feeling, and both its beauty and brutality, draw yourself a seat at the Caroline Polacheck show. The producer, singer, songwriter and musician who you may know as formerly one-half of Chairlift has crafted a debut album under her own name Pang, about precisely that. Not coincidentally, its 14 tracks are also a masterclass in premier, grab-your-heart pop writing.

First, you're hit by her voice. You could deem it reminiscent at times of Imogen Heap, if only because Heap uses a vocoder that sounds similar to Polachek's natural voice. As Polachek put it in 2014, “the Auto-tuned glitch thing is a way of singing that I developed slowly over the past couple years, just using glottal slips." But beyond that, the album as a whole nudges into the same post-internet-pop territory as, say, Hannah Diamond. Pang is both a unique and familiar proposition. It’s a pop album that’s experimental; and an experimental album that at times is very capital Pop.

Homing in on Polachek's back catalogue gives some clues to how she arrived at this unique crossroads. She’s always had a knack for banging out palatable, affecting pop songs, for example, whether that’s Chairlift’s 2008 song “Bruises” (featured in an iPod commercial) or grabbing a writing credit on Beyonce’s Grammy nominated self-titled album, for the 2013 track “No Angel”.

In more recent years, her idiosyncratic voice has floated atop some huge left field collaborations, too. “Chamakay” with Blood Orange. “Tears” – on Charli XCX’s gloriously eclectic, futuristic leaning mixtape Pop 2. A writing credit on Travis Scott’s “SDP” interlude, via a previous collaboration with chillwave superstar Washed Out. Meanwhile her solo albums under names Ramona Lisa and CEP were eagerly lapped up by fans ranging from analytical Fact Mag readers to gushing Celebbuzz followers.

Pang bridges these two worlds, bringing together the Billboard chart fans and those who like their pop to be a little more experimental. Case in point: it’s co-exec produced by Danny L Harle, essentially building on the vision PC Music set out all those years ago, to create disruptive, energetic pop music. On Pang, though, Polachek smoothes out some of those skittery edges. You're not bombarded with no weird samples or pitched-up voices, but the late 2010s subgenre's cerebral, synapse-stoking tone remains.

Recent single “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” is a prime example, combining a huge chorus – the kind seemingly purpose built for strutting down the street while having a moment – with relatively sparse production in the verses. Bursting with the vibrance of a lost 80s smash hit, it’s built around a smooth, slinky bassline before exploding into action upon its emotional reveal: “I get a little lonely / get a little more close to me / you’re the only one who knows me babe / so hot you’re hurting my feelings, can’t deal.”

The feeling instilled in that leap from verse to chorus on “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” is one of the record’s “pang” moments – when the intended emotion viscerally floats from your stomach up through your chest and comes fizzing into your brain. Understandably, given its name, the record has plenty more incidences like this. The second half of the chorus of “Ocean Of Tears”, layered with two rounds of heavy synth bass. The way her voice crawls, lucidly, on “Hit Me Where It Hurts”, as she wails “do you feel safe?”

Lyrically, the record largely centres on the push-and-pull of relationships. Have I done something wrong, do you like me, would it be weird if I sent you a message to say I’m thinking about you right now, etc? She captures the rushing anxiety that comes with those feelings – for example “Sometimes I wonder / do I love you too much / then I tell myself ‘Caroline shut up’”, on the gloriously named “Caroline Shut Up”. Or, simply, despair at things not going as they should, as on the reflective “I Give Up”.

That this record exists is a coup for both fans and artists. As Polachek explained in an interview with Billboard this year, “the industry has set up this assembly line where anyone who’s doing anything remotely different is fast-tracked toward chart pop.” Essentially, every label is looking for a smash – something like “I Love It”, written by fellow alt-pop artist Charli XCX for Icona Pop. However increasingly, as with Charli, or Carly Rae Jepsen, left-leaning pop acts are seeing doors open for them as labels become accustomed to the idea that a pop record can be different and banging.

And so Pang fully pulls that off. It’s got major label backing – it's out on her own imprint, Perpetual Novice, though connected to Sony – but the label's approach largely seems to be hands-off, allowing Caroline to produce her vision. In this case, that’s an album that sits slightly off centre, balancing the ticking of boxes of what a proper pop record should do – get your head fizzing, with subdued, yet no less emotional moments. It is, as it aims to be, an aural definition of “pang”, demonstrating the highs and lows of sharp, rushing feeling with precision.

@ryanbassil

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