Chairlift’s Music Was Pure Craft, Mistaken for Magic
With the indie pop duo's final shows done we look back on their three studio albums.
Chairlift's hometown of Boulder, Colorado, sits at the base of the Rocky Mountains. Towns like this often seem like aberrations – a blemish on otherwise flawless skin. Aerial photos show small, stout buildings, colossal mountains, and clear, uninterrupted sky. There is plenty of space in Boulder. So it makes sense that this university town is where Chairlift hail: the group's innate understanding of space, of how emptiness can beget beauty, has to stem from somewhere.
Initially, it was just Caroline Polachek and Aaron Pfenning, University of Colorado graduates interested in making music on the fringes – ambient soundscapes, noise music, weirdo pop. A move to Brooklyn connected them with multi-instrumentalist Patrick Wimberly, and the trio proceeded to release an album, Does You Inspire You.
Chairlift's debut is messy and arty in a whole heap of terrible ways – too long, too arch, too wide reaching to assert an identity. At nearly an hour long, it's the longest of Chairlift's three records. As they would later prove, simplicity was one of the band's strengths. Mostly, it just doesn't feel like there's enough room for the songs to breathe; Chairlift were already good writers but on Does You Inspire You they sound impeded. Many of the issues with the record feel symptomatic of the band feeling the need to prove their range – you can hear it in the heavy-handed horn section on "Ceiling Wax", or the strange country duet "Don't Give a Damn", or the inexplicable French lyrics of "Le Flying Saucer Hat". The best songs, "Planet Health" and "Evident Utensil", lean more heavily towards the sound that Polachek and Wimberly would mine for their Pfenning-free follow-ups to Does You Inspire You. The album isn't bad, not by any means – it just lacks the clarity and sharpness of Chairlift's later work, doesn't give the same thrilling feeling of weightlessness that Something and Moth provide. Looking back, it's a serviceable indie-pop record – which is fine – and little more.
Released on an un-noteworthy indie label, Does You Inspire You (and Chairlift) might have just faded into obscurity along with the rest of the mid-2000s cohort of Brooklyn indie-pop bands, if it weren't for "Bruises", the record's breakout. It is the kind of mid-2000s pop song that seemed like it was designed for ad placement. It found its way into an iPod commercial, which in turn caught the attention of a lot of listeners, and Columbia Records. The song probably paid (and still pays) Chairlift's bills, but in many ways the song's eventual ubiquity did more harm to the band's image than it did good. (Call it the Feist curse.) To this day it remains the band's most well known song, which is unfortunate – Pfenning's emo-boy vocals and Polachek's cloying, Regina Spektor-aping coos make Chairlift seem a lot more twee (and a lot less weird) than they actually are.
The band wrote a lot of would-be pop songs in their eleven years; it is a pity that "Bruises" is probably the one that will endure in popular culture. Nine years later, they would release "Show U Off", one of their best pop songs and almost a direct counterpoint to "Bruises". Beginning, almost mockingly, with the kind of shimmery fanfare that underpins the older song, "Show U Off" proceeds to trim all the fat of 'Bruises's production and turn that song's concept of showing off – doing handstands – into something bigger and altogether more glamorous: exhibiting uncontainable mutual love and affection. It is, by all means, the better song.
Pfenning left Chairlift between their debut and Something, their follow-up. Pfenning's exit was necessary for the band to create their latter two records, both compelling products of Wimberly and Polachek's symbiotic passion and craft. In a recent interview with Pitchfork, the duo described Pfenning as an "obstacle", which, aside from being a scorching burn, actually feels pretty accurate – his contributions felt annoying at best and downright obnoxious at worst, as on "Bruises".
In the years between records, Polachek and Wimberly refined their craft intensely – while the records sound similar on a topical level, there's a focus and sense of perspective on Something that wasn't present on Does You Inspire You. The baroque flourishes are gone, the duo's sound pared down to fewer, more cohesive, elements. Something took the threads of eighties influence from Does You Inspire You – Wimberly's chief pool of inspiration, evidenced by his later production work for Blood Orange and Wet – and remolded them to fit within the structures of what the duo had already established. The album is less wide reaching than Does You Inspire You, but it's also somehow more variegated, more fluid; it's all eighties indebted, sure, but it cherry-picks from interesting, forgotten quarters, lifting a kraut-ish beat here ("Wrong Opinion"), a new age-y synth there ("Cool As a Fire").
More than anything, Something exhibits the duo tapping into a sort of liminality that they would continue to explore through to Moth, the middle space between physical and mental that connects the two. Never entirely cerebral or bodily, Something's standouts epitomize this concept. "I Belong In Your Arms", the best example of this, begins as a straightforward synth-pop song before scattering about two-thirds of the way in, frenetic drums and vocal samples sliding around weightlessly like air hockey pucks. The song sounds like a headrush, or butterflies in your stomach, when things are going slightly too fast to catch the details, but it's exciting anyway. The song is precise but feels constantly out of time, the beat sprinting to catch up with the Polachek's lyrical whirlwind.
This same sensation crops up elsewhere on Something: "I Belong In Your Arms" head rush is tinted with anxiety on "Amanaemonesia" but imbued with excitement on "Met Before'". It's no coincidence that these are some of Chairlift's best songs. The strange feeling that these songs are playing in your head – not being heard, exactly, but being dreamt, or conjured – is unique to only a few artists; think prime-era Kate Bush or the more outré patches of The Knife's catalogue. Chairlift are rarely spoken about with the same reverence as those artists are, but it's hard not to think that maybe the duo's ingenuity was overshadowed by aesthetics. That maybe their surface-level similarity to hundreds of other eighties revival bands or their physical similarity to hundreds of other boy-girl pop duos cost them a larger or more devoted audience.
Personal and professional triumphs proceeded Moth: Polachek got married and co-wrote and produced a song for Beyoncé's self-titled 2013 record. "No Angel", her contribution to the album, is distinctly Chairlift-y in the way it lilts between high and low, visceral and heavenly. While "No Angel" is one of the least pop-beholden tracks on the album, it feels like working with one of pop's greats gave Polachek new insight into her own work; you can hear the magnetic tension — not to mention the exploration of marital bliss — that characterises Beyoncé's later work all throughout Moth.
There are simultaneously many and few analogues for Moth, Chairlift's final record. Influences can be picked out on a micro level, but as an album, what else sounds like this? You can draw the 80s reference again, but the record is more complex than that, with its strange, vaccum-packed sounds. Polachek and Wimberly sound like one being on Moth. By this point, Polachek had learned to modulate her vocals like one of her beloved synths, folding and unfolding her words like origami. Wimberly's production is nearly as expressive – and absolutely as essential – as Polachek's voice, creating sounds that sound natural in their fluidity but could only ever be synthetic because of the way they so keenly elevate Polachek's presence.
"Crying In Public" shows us the duo at their peak. Wimberly's production rattles and sways like a subway car, Polachek's vocal cool but deeply emotive. Like "I Belong In Your Arms", "Crying In Public" is a display of excess emotion, of being so overpowered by love that your only choice is physical expression. The track is soft and gelatinous; it feels almost like a re-write of 'Planet Health', with all the excess of that track cut away. Polachek's chorus of "I am feeling great tonight" in the older track is pushed into overdrive on "Crying In Public", unbridled ecstasy pushed over into anxiety.
The warmth of Something developed into a smoky, almost abrasive edge on Moth. There are sounds on the record that suggest the band might have had harsher and more interesting places to go. "Ch-Ching", the album's first single, is weirdly trap-y, Polachek's vocal indecipherable apart from a few detached words and numbers. It sounds like some kind of alien, futurist hip-hop; a remix featuring D.R.A.M. and Jimi Tents was released, but few rappers could ever really do justice to something so weird. "Ch-Ching" is deeply indebted to New York City, as all of Moth is. The odd whispers and bicycle bell chimes and drifting horns feel like field recordings. Even Polachek's vocal feels like it's assembled from a hundred disparate parts, so beautifully disjointed in its delivery.
Moth begins with "Look Up" and ends with "No Such Thing As Illusion", two of the duo's most freeform compositions. "Look Up" essentially serves as an intro, but "No Such Thing" is more complicated. Six-and-a-half minutes long, the song attempts to stop time altogether, with Polachek pushing back against the notion that love or romance has to change. "Don't tell me that it's fleeting / Don't tell me it's a honeymoon / Don't tell me that this feeling comes and goes," she sings. Fear paralyses the song; it swells and crests and resets, looping over and over across its run.
That keen sense of how lyrical and musical emotion fit together is at the heart of what made Chairlift special. There were a lot of great bands that came out of the mid-2000s Brooklyn indie-rock scene, but few so truly understood how to convey un-conveyable feelings – affection so powerful it's overwhelming, fear so dark it's paralyzing. Chairlift's music was pure craft, mistaken for magic.
Image: Columbia Records