Before 2019, no one would fault you for not recognizing the name Caroline Polachek. Polachek herself probably wouldn’t even expect it: her past work features a series of performances that avoid naming her directly. Singing for the group Chairlift, behind-the-scenes credits on Beyonce’s “No Angel,” and two different pseudonyms of varying degrees of accuracy to her real name (Ramona Lisa and CEP, her initials) largely concealed her identity in the public eye. Pang is her first record released as herself, a symbolic shift from the universal to the personal. The album, centered alongside executive production from PC Music’s Danny L Harle, feels like an actualization of self, a cathartic gasp. Caroline Polachek shows us Caroline Polachek, bare and confidently unfiltered: “look at me now” is not only an invitation here but a challenge.
Of course, there are barriers to presenting oneself. On “The Gate,” an ambient pop track that opens the record with the perfect amount of pomp to feel like an entry into another world, Polachek stands between two realms and yearns for a way “to be both free and safe.” On “Door,” a track about overcoming disconnect, every door leads to another door to be opened and ran through. Pang is full of these little moments of hesitation and doubt, but also moments of release. “Door” itself allows tension to build during the bridge as the doors are ran through and an empty house is sung to, but the chorus is all realization and ecstasy. On “Caroline Shut Up,” doubt about a relationship turns into defiance, subtle lyrical turns showing her own desire for truth.
While much of the album finds Polachek wandering about her own mental landscape, many tracks place a heavy emphasis on physicality. “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” a bouncy up-tempo track that already feels classic, is decidedly horny in between bouts of tears (the sing-song refrain of “show me the banana” needs no analysis). “Pang” is built around a chorus of Caroline exhaling the song’s title with the power of a hurricane. The word pang itself has an inherent sense of physical realness to it, something that feels incredibly important to the album’s identity. She is constantly navigating the connections between the real and the imagined: knives cut fear, true pain is emotional pain, literal breath connects individuals.
Caroline continues to lyrically explore both intellectual and material sensations throughout, but her singing is where she’s able to truly communicate the corporeal. The moans on “Hit Me Where It Hurts” and the falsetto crying on “Ocean of Tears” feel remarkably physical, thanks in part to Polachek’s virtuoso vocal control. Simply put, she’s a masterful singer. While her tone sometimes recalls the digital musings of Imogen Heap, her style is much more varied, easily bouncing between theatrics and more relaxed singing.
On the production side, Harle mainly focuses on switching between heightening Caroline’s physicality and offering space to show off echo and breath. The PC Music ethos of maximalism is largely abandoned, something that benefits the album and lets the artist shine. “Go As a Dream” and “Look At Me Now” are sparse and meditative, balancing off tracks like “Ocean of Tears” and “Pang” that are true punches to the gut.
Occasionally, however, the ordering falters with a few songs that derail the flow. “New Normal” has a pseudo-country twang that feels out of place, and “I Give Up” feels more like a Haim song than a Pang song. Even “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” for all its greatness, sounds a bit wrong amidst these other songs. Ultimately, not all the tracks here feel completely necessary, and it can end up feeling a bit overzealous at times.
Of course, this is a forgivable criticism when all the songs are just this damn good. Pang may not be perfect, but an album this indebted to imagining and constructing the artists’ identity won’t be perfect. It exists in a world where the physical and the mental meet, coalesce, break apart and come together again, a world that grows increasingly important to understand in our digital age. The lasting image of Pang is that of the gate or the door, liminal spaces that are both real and unreal. Good pop music can be truly personal; great pop music can take the personal and stretch it further.
- Ben Mangelsdorf
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