Caroline Polachek‘s show in Manchester has been a long time coming, having been cancelled due to illness in February. She teases the crowd when talking about it, saying she wanted to faux-cancel again. Once a member of the moderately successful Chairlift and releasing her debut solo album Pang to medium acclaim, there has always been potential for Polachek’s artistry to go stratospheric. 2023 is her year. Always playing with expectations, and working in contradictions, Caroline Polachek is a blessing to fans contemporaries alike.
The inventive, playful and exploratory second album Desire, I Want To Turn Into You does not deal in halves. Soaring vocals from years of classical training, and a sonic framework that Polachek cites as inspired from The Hacienda and the 1990s. However, it does not hark back, but instead looks forward to the future of pop; fiercely intellectual and capable of giving so many people peace and joy.
This is evidenced in the constant movement from the crowd at the beautiful Albert Hall, with embers of dwindling sunset refracting through the gothic windows. Behind cut-out volcanos and in front of solar visuals stood Polachek’s three-piece band, with Polachek bounding onto stage to the intro of ‘Welcome to My Island’. Polachek wears a cropped top with ‘POTENTIAL’ written in bold letters, connoting to the transformative power of her career, and where she finds herself now as a titan of alt-pop. Her potential, 15 years into her career, is boundless.
Polachek is a master of creating songs that work on multiple levels. ‘Welcome to My Island’ is a euphoric, party-starting song, with a hook that would invigorate even the most reluctant and world-weary of partygoers. However, it’s lyrical content and semantic field are about ego, and Polachek’s own flaws; “about being trapped in your own head and forcing everyone else in there with you. In that sense, it’s both commanding and pathetic”.
Commanding and pathetic is something we can all relate to. With Caroline Polachek, there isn’t the smokescreen of traditional pop music, but a sincerity that holds enough meaning for fans to annotate her lyrics to death on Genius, while being not only accessible but completely euphoric.
Coupled with the venue, Polachek’s set seemed to mirror the forces of nature. Nodding to the dying light, Polachek teed up the atmospherically flamenco ‘Sunset’. At points, Polachek’s vocals are out-shouted by the adoring crowd, encouraging Polachek to give more and dance more; she held the crowd by her own virtue.
Caroline Polachek refutes being labelled as a diva, yet at the show, she displays the qualities of a diva. “The diva inherently holds this contradiction of being able to destroy and heal at the same time […] you serve her the wrong kind of champagne, and she will cancel the gig. Also, she has the power to make every single person in the room at peace with themselves”. Polachek leans into the theatre and wonder of a diva performance, yet is warm and giving. Above all, everything is done on her terms.
The biggest songs of the night came from ‘I Believe’, inspired by listening to Celine Dion on an acid trip in Southern Italy, and 2019’s ‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’, which saw mainstream success in the form of being a viral TikTok song. However, the fans are here for the show, and Polachek’s experience of relentless touring has given her the strength to produce incredible shows, yet now in a different discipline from the serial support band Chairlift to front and centre stardom.
Bouncing from the glitchy “Pang” to the window of sheer emotion on “Hopedrunk Everasking”, Caroline Polachek has incredible range. She defies genre and is part of the outstanding crop of artists that are popstars while being experimental and pushing the envelope as to what pop music is. Her contemporaries and collaborators in Grimes, Charli XCX and Chris of Christine And The Queens all articulate modern life and have changed the face of pop music; fierce, sexy and honest. Artists can express who they truly and not hide elements of themselves in the name of label decisions or record sales, and we get to see more feats of creative expression.
Polachek is a pop-star for our generation. She deals with emotions with compassion and with a voice that has lived them. She’s often asked to give advice to other generations, but shies away from it, acutely aware of the ever-changing face of music. The Caroline Polachek that stood on stage at the Albert Hall is a product of her past, yet she is trailblazing a future. The album cover of Desire, I Want To Turn Into You is apt; she’s made it through the grime and the dirt of the subway. What is she looking at in the distance? Only she can see her creative vision, but you can guarantee that when we get to see it, it will be beautiful.