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Music review: This year’s tender anthem for pained lovers is here

The title track of pop musician Caroline Polachek’s ‘Pang’ perfectly captures the way love and pain intertwine.
Jam Pascual | Nov 08 2019

Why do we build edifices for the way we hurt?

Let’s start with one form of hurt. Define: pang. A sudden sensation, usually of a painful nature. Normally attached to “hunger” or “of guilt” or “of shame.” There is also the overlapping implication of hunger and shame — a body realizing perhaps a little late that something good is missing from its system, that it could stand to be strengthened by something good for it. Google the definition for “pang” and the search engine describes the feeling as sharp. But aren’t hunger and shame more like a blunt ache, a kind of throbbing? Imagine a balloon filling to its maximum size on the first blow--suddenly full and fragile.

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The whole of Pang, Caroline Polachek’s latest album, is a finely produced pop album that approaches the pains of love with grace and magnanimity. But while it is only another example of the kind of alternative, out-of-left-field pop we’ve been seeing come out lately (Maggie Rogers, Rina Sawayama, Charli XCX, Now Now, Wet), the title track is special, tender, approaching desire and hurt in a way you don’t hear often.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Caroline Polachek (@carolineplz) on

The song begins with a twinkling synth lick that flickers in and out of the track like fireflies in tall grass. Subdued clicking percussion cues us for a spacious vocal harmony, clearing all preceding silence like a Gregorian choir. “There’s a look in your eyes when you’re hungry for me,” Polachek sings. “It’s a beautiful knife cutting right where the fear should be.” Not since Ezra Koenig’s “In A Station At the Metro” has there been a couplet loaded with more power. And all Polachek needs is one couplet to establish “Pang’s” thesis before launching into the chorus. Onomatopoeia. “Into me, pang! And I go / into you, pang! and you go / into me.” The lilt of her falsetto is not unlike Imogen Heap’s, smooth but full, like a pelican gliding over and scooping water. And there’s something about the rap-like delivery of “Tell me what you’re afraid of” in the bridge that plugs the hole in my heart that Drake’s Take Care used to fill.

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Some of you might be familiar with Polachek’s work with her old band Chairlift. I remember catching their “Bruises” video on Channel V. This was 2008, and I couldn’t understand, naively, why anyone would batter themselves black and blue with clumsy stunt displays for a lover. I’d run into her work again in a feature with PC Music producer Danny L. Harle. The PC Music label has been described by critics as alien, a self-conscious parody of Billboard pop that embraces its most artificial, commercial, bubblegum elements to create something almost inhuman—like they found the sonic equivalent of the uncanny valley. The particular song Polachek sang with Harle in “Ashes of Love” almost fits this bill: abrasive synths blasting out of some vision of a tech dystopia. But Polachek grounds it, gives it flesh and blood when she howls, “Burning, burning me up / ashes of love / it’s torture, and torture’s not enough.”

These were the works that eased me into the way Polacheck sings of love, pain, and their sweet interstice. Another track on her new album, “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” perfectly captures this emotion. The music video shows Polachek lackadaisically dancing in hell as she pines for an ex because he’s so! Freakin’! Hot! Anyone who looks at a thirst trap pic and feels like a knife is plunging straight into their sternum knows this feeling. There’s a reason the French describe the orgasm as “the little death.” There is something about desire’s most intense conclusion that feels like rushing headlong into the reaper’s arms. In either case, sweet release.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Caroline Polachek (@carolineplz) on

Why do we build edifices for the way we hurt? Maybe it is our way of honoring the pain, of giving due credit to the thing so powerful it pierced through our painstakingly defined defenses. I am the kind of person who pines. I pine for people I’ve lost. I pine for people I still have in my life but haven’t seen for a couple of weeks. Even when I’m committed to someone I love and they’re committed to me, I pine, haunted by visions of possible loss.

But the hurt in “Pang” is not the battering ram that breaks through stone walls. “It’s a beautiful knife cutting right where the fear should be.” It is an incision. A love like an instrument of healing. I imagine the addressee of “Pang” to be a lover who has been around for a while, or at least a new love so amazing it makes you push all your chips to the middle of the table, confident in this all or nothing, because you know you’re coming home winning it all.

Maybe I’m jinxing it to bring this up: I’m in a relationship with someone I love, who loves me. It’s good. It’s so good. But it still hurts. Why?

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Caroline Polachek (@carolineplz) on

Because it hurts the way your chest tightens at the sight of the earth from a thousand feet off the ground. It hurts the way a good cup of coffee enlivens your heart so much you feel you could burst with light. No hunger or shame in those things. I tell my beloved, I keep being astonished with how good it is. “Get me in like a secret / I open the door and you run through,” Polachek sings. Isn’t that also a pang? A defense so efficiently breached it feels like a kind of cutting through?

Perhaps we build edifices for the way we hurt, on the off-chance that someone will come along to sweetly demolish them, and build a new monument of love in its place. The sound of “Pang” is the sound of love being constructed.