If you want to know what confidence sounds like, listen to "Polymorphing," the best song on Chairlift’s excellent new LP Moth. "There’s something better than what you’re asking for, kid," sings Caroline Polachek, cool and controlled like your street-wise older sister. She’s backed by a stark beat and a little spray of guitar. Sumptuous horns and a liquid bass line spring to life, giving the song a jazzy anchor.
Polachek lands somewhere between Steely Dan and Sade, rattling off the names of potent prescription medications and floating into her crystalline, newly powerful upper register. After three minutes, the song starts to stutter, mirroring the titular transformation; Polachek babbles and skips before tucking into a piercing, wordless high note. When Polachek sings, "I beg for forgiveness, not permission" a few songs later, I can’t help but think about "Polymorphing," a song that commands your attention and expresses a bold, refined vision for pop music.
Moth is Chairlift’s third album, though it’s the second Polachek and Patrick Wimberly have released as a duo; founding member Aaron Pfenning left the group a few years after the release of their debut Does You Inspire You. 2012’s follow-up Something marked a huge step forward from the amateurish, precocious pop of DYIY — one taken with gooey, glittering synth melodies and stronger vocals from Polachek — and Moth represents the same kind of leap. Polachek and Wimberly are making the most aggressive, unabashedly physical music of their career, but they’ve also never sounded more vulnerable, and that’s a tough balance to strike.
It’s tempting to chalk up the band’s growth to a run-in with royalty. Polachek wrote and produced (and Wimberly co-produced) one of the best songs on Beyoncé’s self-titled 2013 album, "No Angel," and you can hear Moth starting to take flight within it. It’s a rhythmically dense song, full of snaps, thuds, and rattling sub-bass; the melody drips like a leaky faucet; Beyoncé’s voice is raspy and fluttering before it turns on a dime, becoming full-throated and fierce. It’s a mature, assertive statement from a woman who recognizes her problems and commands respect in spite (or because) or them. Polachek and Wimberly were working on some of Moth’s tracks well before Beyoncé came out — you can hear them gut through an early version of "Ch-Ching" at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago in the summer of 2013. The song’s release didn’t spark an earth-shattering epiphany, but it ended up serving as a clear indicator the band was on the right track.
These songs have steely, self-aware cores
Polachek reunited with her teenage opera teacher while recording the album, and her training gave her voice new power and clarity you can hear throughout Moth. It’s particularly obvious in the album’s stunning high notes, sure — there’s one at the end of "Show U Off" that earns the descriptor "Carey-esque," and I can’t imagine higher praise — but it’s there on a moment-to-moment basis, too. She stands up to the ruthless breakbeat that propels "Romeo" forward; she’s rock-solid within cacophonous lead single "Ch-Ching"; she gives the bruised "Crying in Public" a steely, self-aware core. These songs have roots even the best cuts on Something ("I Belong in Your Arms," "Met Before") lacked. Some of them suggest the DIY, polyglot pop Grimes mastered last year with Art Angels, and others borrow from all over the place — to hip-hop, to Afrobeat, to jazz, to R&B.
Polachek and Wimberly have gone to great lengths to describe Moth as their "New York album," a collection of songs shaped by the stew of sounds and experiences you can only access in the city. It’s not hard to hear that in a song like "Crying in Public," which somehow turns sobbing on the train into a dignified, romantic act. The city’s impact on Moth is deeper than references to public transit or crowded sidewalks. If you believe Polachek and Wimberly, it’s a crucible that schools you on your limitations and encourages you to take risks despite them. "I should know better than to take your love letters to heart," sings Polachek on the giddy "Moth to the Flame." She can’t help herself: a few seconds later, she’s muttering, "He’s that kind of man, Mama." One song later, she’s parading a lover around the city "so that they see / who’s finally saying yes to love!"
When you're open to possibility, anything can happen
Polachek’s romantic bravery is a manifestation of the band’s newfound confidence. When you’re open to possibility, there’s a chance you end up dabbing at your tears on the subway, but there’s also a chance you end up drunk in love and screaming it from the rooftops. Moth reminds me of an essay Joan Didion wrote in 1961, "On Self-Respect": "It is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds." Chairlift is writing and playing like a band that’s taken that sentiment to heart. They roll the dice on this album, and the gamble pays musical dividends.