Caroline Polachek – ‘Pang’ review: years of experiments pay off

The Charlift singer has crystallised years of musical exploration (which included a Beyoncé co-write) into her innovative first solo record under her own name

For over a decade, Caroline Polachek was best known as the frontwoman of Chairlift, the experimental pop group she formed during art school. Her band got their big breakthrough back in 2008, during a very specific era when a song placement on an iPod Nano advert could shoot an act into the stratosphere.

Multicoloured iPods sold to the minimalist sounds ‘Bruises’ was just the beginning, though – over the next nine years, Chairlift released a trio of boundary pushing and ethereal records, becoming one of the most intriguing pop groups going. Their third and final record, ‘Moth’, filled with fidgeting, strange love songs, was  Chairlift flawless. Bowing out on a high, the group split in 2017.

Along the way Polachek has branched off into various other side projects, and strictly speaking ‘Pang’ isn’t her debut solo record. Her first – released under the alter-ego Ramona Lisa – was weird and meandering, painting abstract soundscapes out of sirens and scraps of field recordings captured on tour with Chairlift. 2017’s ‘Drawing The Target Around The Arrow’, released under Polachek’s initials, CEP, was another experiment. It was created using sine waves – mathematical curves that show smooth, constant oscillation. Elsewhere she worked with Danny L Harle, Charli XCX, Blood Orange, and pop titan Beyoncé (Polacheck co-wrote and produced ‘No Angel’ from Bey’s self-titled fifth record).

The bottom line was that all of these projects were departures – brief trips away from home to shake things up and try something different. And this is where ‘Pang’ differs – perhaps tellingly, it’s released under its creator’s full name.

Polachek’s phenomenal range and control is at the centre of ‘Pang’. Her voice is sometimes shrouded with glitchy autotune that bursts sporadically and, at full pelt, her voice is equally distinctive even without the technical wizardry. Album closer ‘Parachute’ spirals into an otherworldly blur of unholy cries, while on ‘I Give Up’ she yelps and soars.

There’s also an inherent playfulness to ‘Pang’ – even at its most heartbroken. Nodding back to the days of ‘Moth’, the protagonist of ‘Hit Me Where It Hurts’ feels like “a butterfly trapped inside a plane” – it’s surreal and hyper-specific. ‘Ocean of Tears’ wears a precise oxymoron proudly on its sleeve: “The only thing that’s separating you and me tonight,” she sings, as if it’s no big deal at all, “is an ocean of tears”. And then there’s ‘Caroline Shut Up’, a self-depreciating doo-wop number on which she takes the piss out of herself.

Bold and brazen – a yearning pang in sonic form – this album is a concentration of Polachek’s previous releases. She’s combined the joy of Chairlift, the atmospheric mastery of Ramona Lisa and the experimentalism of CEP. The result is a Caroline Polachek record in its most distilled and fully realised form.