Pang. The title of Caroline Polachek’s debut album is a curious piece of language. Modulating between material and nonmaterial worlds, a “pang” is a spasmic, intense feeling. It is the seizing of the chest from the sudden swell of emotion, be it shock, hurt, guilt, or loss. Polachek missed no marks in her christening; Pang is indeed a deeply emotional record. It stares, unblinking, into the intensity of its creator’s momentary experiences, peering into a complicated psyche to uncover authentic truth. In its musical imagination, narrative arc, and ambition, Pang is as colossal as an experimental electronica record can get, short of capitalistic chart domination. It dares to dream bigger in every opportunity it gets.
And this immense scope pays off. Polachek does not hesitate to cross genres and make unconventional sonic choices. Years of her racking up impressive writing credits (Beyoncé, Charli XCX, Travis Scott) and accumulating substantial credo in the indie music continuum as part of Brooklyn-based duo Chairlift comes across in Pang’s sheer excellence in craft. Co-writer and producer Danny L. Harle’s dance-pop electronica background marries itself nicely to Polachek’s experience. The duo’s combined acumen about pop music—its limits, and when and where to break them—becomes incredibly apparent; each discordant chord progression and non-traditional rhythmic backbone feeds into to a rich palette with immaculate nuance. The record’s musical risks, then, are less blind experiment and more deliberate playfulness.
Indeed, at times, the instrumentation on Pang, when isolated, is jarring; steel drums, animalistic calls, tinkling bells and whistles, and mechanical beeps populate themselves in strange spaces of the record. Yet, the percussive affectations of Pang never totally disenfranchise the listener. Polachek and Harle know exactly how to mold discomforting sounds into interesting, danceable, or even melancholic ones.
Perhaps what shines the brightest, sonically or otherwise, on Pang is Polachek’s distinctive voice. Arguably an industry best, Polachek’s voice floats delicately in one moment and then wails, hallowed, in the next. It carries an ethereal quality that is neither profoundly sad nor really, truly happy; rather, it flexes an emotional malleability capable of soundtracking both quirky advertisements— think the 2008 iPod nano commercial that brought Polachek to the indie limelight—and post-breakup lamentations. While not completely versatile to every situation, Polachek’s voice borders a wide emotional spectrum.
This quality works especially well given the complex narrative journey upon which Pang embarks. The album’s narrative arc descends slowly into a dissociative, lonely twilight as the record progresses towards track 8, appropriately titled “Ocean of Tears.” Polachek then decides to re-emerge into a soft morning light: the last six tracks of the record are filled with humor and a morbid sense of optimism. “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” track 12, is a titularly self-evident example of this tail-heavy swing upwards.
The chorus of the penultimate track, “Door,” perhaps most aptly summarizes the complex nature of the record’s lyrics: “You open a door to another door, to another door, to another door.” Indeed, the lyrical narrative of Pang seems to be a set of unending doors. As half of Chairlift, Polachek was notorious for her surrealist writing. One of the duo’s most famous tracks is “Amanaemonesia,” its title totally made-up, yet evocative nonetheless. Pang sees Polachek often in her natural element: images of embassy flags and baths running cold appear without context. Like all good surrealists, though, Polachek’s moments of strangeness are exactly the source of her strength. They make for a bizarre applicability, and it is easy to find her lyrics compelling despite their lack of convention. “Will you be a shipwreck or a star / Falling for a boy who doesn't play guitar?” as she laments on “Go As A Dream,” is an oddly relatable question despite its pinhole specificity.
It is notable that while surrealism runs abound on Pang, it does not wholly encapsulate the record. “Caroline Shut Up” is perhaps Pang’s best song, despite the track being its most lyrically transparent. The production is minimalistic but not empty; it only magnifies Polachek’s earnest vocalizations. Its chorus is unclouded but effective: “Sometimes, I wonder / Do I love you too much? / Then I tell myself, ‘Caroline, shut up.’” It perfectly depicts the internal war nearly all individuals in intense relationships wage; it is a faithfully accurate painting of the neurotic contemporary lover. Pang is best when it is capable of dutiful depiction of real life while still maintaining its creator’s sense of identity.
Despite its excellence, Pang is not a seminal work: Polachek is not breaking substantial new ground for electronica nor fundamentally re-defining her industry. Regardless, she has successfully created one of the best records of the year. Sonically artificial but spiritually organic, Pang is an emotional record to experience again and again as life presents itself in new lights.
Photo Credit: Nedda Asfari