Caroline Polachek’s first solo album under her own name, Pang, is like an enigmatic dream that you struggle to make sense of. That is to say: this album grows on you. Pang unfolds a little more with each listen, revealing musical details and emotional beats that passed you by before. Pang feels like a natural meeting point between Polachek’s prior projects, the more electro-pop rhythms of Chairlift and the atmosphere-heavy Ramona Lisa. Here, she combines her relative strengths to create an album reliant on “vibe” but rewarding once you manage to land on her wavelength.
The structure of the album – bookended by two entrances and exits (“The Gate” and “Door”) –takes shape as one long night of the soul. Polachek has described her album as a descent into “apathy, longing, and fear” on Side A and a re-ascent into “revelation, humor, and trust” on Side B. The apex of those negative emotions comes halfway through in “Insomnia.” The song title is apt because Pang feels like one person’s long night of insomnia, introspection, self-torture, and examination. There’s a struggle with a romantic partner somewhere within this, but it isn’t cut-and-dry. Polachek uses her sky-high ethereal vocals to express an overflow of internal conflict stemming from various anxieties, most clearly in “Caroline Shut Up,” a cheekily self-aware take on a pop-ballad.
That descent and ascent structure is definitely evident in listening to the album, which makes the first listen less compelling than one would like. The slow unfolding of the first several songs pales to the second half of the album, which benefits from the late-album duo “Caroline Shut Up” and “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” both of which have instant hooks with the latter crafting a surprisingly humorous and endearing spin on the pop staple of the “I’ve got a crush” song.
The first half of the album reveals its charms to you gradually, once you can sink into the spirit of Pang, and embrace the emotional journey Polachek has planned for you. The first two tracks, “The Gate” and “Pang” in particular are adept in first providing a short prelude to the rest of the album, and second, laying down the central themes. “Pang” has Polachek singing about “a look in your eyes when you’re hungry for me/ it’s a beautiful knife cutting right where the fear should be.” That combination of fear, exhilaration, lust, and love crops up repeatedly throughout the album to compelling effect.
Pang introduces itself a little too quietly to be completely satisfying. However, once you give the album some time and understand its singular rhythms, there are treasures to be found there.