For Caroline Polachek, each album she makes produces an equal and opposite LP down the road. She’s been making hard sonic and thematic pivots in her music since she was part of the acclaimed group Chairlift, going from smart-yet-staid fringe pop songs on their debut to more urgent, angular, and electronic tunes on their subsequent projects. The trend has continued into her eclectic solo career.
“I’ve done that with every record I have ever made, and sometimes it throws the fans off,” she says over the phone the day before her new solo album Pang is released. “When Chairlift put out our second record people were angry, and both of my releases prior to this one were extremely different from anything I had done before. I think that’s just part of how I do it.”
Pang, Polachek’s first release under her real name, is her most intimate and emotionally candid project thus far — the only logical move after her 2017 ambient project, Drawing the Target Around the Arrow.
With its focus on not simply love, but also control, vulnerability, and longing, Pang is a layered and emotionally rich record that deserves and demands multiple focused listens. Polachek told The FADER it is “a distillation of the Caroline that was already there,” and glimpses of the progressive pop of Chairlift, theatricality of Ramona Lisa, and the lush soundscapes of Drawing the Target, which she released under the name CER. She explains that what sets this new album apart is its directness, a quality she’s come to value greatly over time.
“I used to be much more interested in mystery and abstraction and jarring contrasts and wordplay,” she says. “I think as I’ve deepened my knowledge and passion as both a music fan and an artist I just desire more and more clarity and honesty out of music.”
While the thematic direction for Pang was apparent — as was the title, which came to her in the middle of the night during a 2017 trip to London — it was a longer process to figure out the sonic palette. It’s hard to believe that the album, which features measured, but noticeable, digital distortion on Polachek’s voice, along with rich beds of synths both icy and warm, was originally intended to be far more anachronistic and lean.
“The vision evolved a lot over the course of [making Pang]. I started out approaching this album actually somewhere in between folk songwriting and jazz standards. That’s what I wanted to do, something deliberately stripped-down and essential,” she recalls.
Polachek produced or co-produced every song on the record, sharing the responsibility with PC Music members Danny L Harle and A.G. Cook, as well as others like Andrew Wyatt and Daniel Nigro. She credits meeting Harle with drastically changing the album’s trajectory after having worked on it for six months, and even goes as far as to claim that “life has never been the same” since their musical partnership formed.
“it was only when I accidentally ended up in a writing session with Danny L Harle that this whole other world came into focus. [We combined] my approach to songwriting with these quite virtual soundscapes and made the whole thing very futuristic, but without making a statement on technology. [It’s] about a very current way of dreaming and feeling and living. It felt more like my real life than anything I’d written before.”
Polachek says that much of the album was inspired by geography and all the time she’s spent on the road throughout her career. But while some artists use travel to incorporate disparate musical styles into their work, Polachek focused more on getting to understand the one constant on all of her journeys: herself.
“For me personally, one of the beautiful things about being lost in translation and traveling so much is it helps you understand who you are,” she says. “You can’t identify yourself with relationships or the structure of home, it strips all those things away.”
Befitting an album that has drastically changed shape since its inception, Pang covers vast territory in Polachek’s life. The woozy “Insomnia” coexists with pristine tracks like “Hit Me Where It Hurts” and “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” but after a decade-plus of watching her refuse to be pinned down or pigeonholed, the music here rarely feels disjointed.
“It’s really sprawling; there’s a lot of ground that I wanted to cover on this record, and that was one of the challenges was how to fit it all into one record and still make it cohesive, she says. “For example, ‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’ is such an outlier on the original that I had in mind.”
To figure out how the songs were related, Polachek came up with a unique classification system that she shared with her collaborators: every track is connected to a direction or kind of movement. “‘Ocean of Tears,’ is upward. ‘Door’ is through. ‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’ is like, around,” she says.
“That way, it helps me and everyone I worked with see how they each stand in relation to one another,” she says.
The album is vulnerable, but also profoundly self-aware, as epitomized by one of its highlights, “Caroline Shut Up.” On it, Polachek pushes back against her intrusive thoughts that cloud a new relationship. It’s the kind of sharp, droll pop song that she’s been writing for years, but with an emotional core more raw and exposed than her previous work.
“The song is essentially about me realizing that internal monologue is preventing anything I wanted from happening. But beyond that, it’s essentially a song about giving up control,” she explains. “I think these negative monologues that we tell ourselves are very often a way of maintaining a kind of control, whether it’s preparing ourselves for disappointment or being overly protective. Sometimes you just have to throw it away.”
In addition to its emotional candor, Polachek says Pang is an outlier from her catalog in another meaningful way: it’s become something of a soundtrack for herself, one that she uses to combat the stressors and banalities of her day.
“It’s the only record I’ve ever made that I listen to regularly for my own pleasure,” she says. “I needed something that I could listen to while working, while sleeping, in the background of all these activities that are stressful in my own life, but that also tap into my body and my sense of focus.”
With trace elements of all her previous musical lives as well as plenty of new twists, Pang is perhaps the strongest album of Polachek’s career. The blend of the electronic and organic makes it a powerful statement on modern life that also feels timeless. It’s almost a shame that her next record will sound nothing like it.
Grant Rindner is a freelance music and culture journalist in New York. He has written for Dazed, Rolling Stone and COMPLEX.