CHAIRLIFT: SOMETHING (2012)
1) Sidewalk Safari; 2) Wrong Opinion; 3) I Belong In Your Arms; 4) Take It Out On Me; 5) Ghost Tonight; 6) Cool As A Fire; 7) Amanaemonesia; 8) Met Before; 9) Frigid Spring; 10) Turning; 11) Guilty As Charged.
By the time their second album was released, Chairlift had already reduced themselves to a duo: Aaron Pfenning left in 2010, and now Chairlift consists of precisely what you see on the album cover. Upon first impression, you do not get the feel that this affects the overall accomplished feel of the music — Polachek and Wimberly are perfectly capable to lay on all the layers on their own. However, technically that does transform them into a «pure» synth-pop outfit, as the guitars are reduced to a bare minimum and, for the most part, the atmosphere of the songs now depends on how dark Wimberly makes his basslines and how cluttery Polachek makes her keyboards.
The formal changes in musical textures are, however, not the main reason why I think Something is a step down, not up, from the exciting debut of Does You Inspire You. The main reason is that the album seems to lay down severe restrictions on the eclecticism and ambitions with which they'd started out four years earlier — I am not sure whether this means just how crucial the presence of Pfenning was to their collective ego, or if it is just another case of the same unfortunate tendency to self-pigeonhole that plagues so many artists, but the fact is, Something is just a synth-pop record of the «me and you» variety, with all the songs whirling around the issue of finding a perfect relationship and then trying not to ruin it. Sound familiar?..
In other words, forget about the ambitious mix of personal and collective problems tackled in 2008, and get ready for a much more modest mix of dance grooves and ballads that run the oh so wide gamut from "I belong in your arms" to "Oh god, just let my love survive". Despite some glowing reviews that actually acknowledged this self-yoking as progress (like, the more they stay out of complex Marxist and Freudian territory, the better for these silly idealistic kids), I find it disappointing — like I said, Does You Inspire You gave a cool impression of the world being discovered by a bunch of inexperienced, but aspiringly smart kids, whereas Something is just another boring record that tries to find hidden depths at the bottom of a glass of water.
Not that it is devoid of nice musical ideas and hooks: if anything, it is saved by technical accomplishments rather than mesmerizing personality. ʽSidewalk Safariʼ, opening the album, is pretty limp if you follow the lyrics and try to convince yourself that Caroline Polachek as a hot female stalker is a credible artistic image... but if you just think of it as a synth-poppified adaptation of some romantic European dance pop groove from around 1968, and pay more attention to the stylish overlays of synthesizers and synth-treated guitars, it becomes nice. Likewise, I care not for the verbal message of ʽWrong Opinionʼ, but I kinda like how the electronic «broken glass effect» holds a dialog of its own with the heavy distorted guitar chords — a good musical allegory of personal paranoia wrestling with the Hand of Doom, if you wish.
However, as a singer, Polacheck only impresses me about twice or thrice on this record. ʽGhost Tonightʼ is a really good one, where you can sense faint echoes of the same dismal doomed desperation that used to power all those Beth Gibbons classics — and it's only with the little things, like the tension and implied tears in the "whoah-oh-oh"s that follow the "Hollow heavy eyes, follow in your light, I'm a ghost tonight" chorus, that the record is able to transcend from catchy pop to the realm of the genuinely soulful. ʽFrigid Springʼ is another one, a moonlight-on-the-lake dream pop tune, all chimes and echoes, and as they get to the chorus, the lady transforms herself into an aethereal will-o'-wisp and just floats across from speaker to speaker — luvverly. On the other hand, sometimes they overdo this: on ʽTurningʼ, there's too much psychedelic vocalizing and not enough singer presence. This is not Enya, after all.
The first single was the tongue-twistedly-titled ʽAmanaemonesiaʼ, and it is far more typical of this record than ʽBruisesʼ was of the debut: a catchy, but not terribly profound synth-pop groove that tries to convey a sense of bewildered infatuation (or something) with its fast tempo, jerkiness, and chaotic sample attack — sort of like a cross between Depeche Mode and Kate Bush, not as dark as the former and not as artsy as the latter (although the accompanying video, most of it spent on featuring Polachek dancing on top of a giant red tongue, is every bit as artsy as any given Kate Bush video — and as far as my own tastes go, Polachek is almost every bit as terrible a dancer as Kate Bush is). And maybe it's an exciting synthesis, but it also traps the record in a nostalgic vibe from which, I believe, Does You Inspire You was largely free: it sounded highly influenced by a lot of people, but also modern and looking forward, whereas Something is more like a tribute to the past, hardly eligible for the status of a «minor modern classic». That said, I do know for a fact that quite a few people have rated it higher than Does You Inspire You — perhaps they are seeing something here that I am not seeing, or, perhaps, they are not seeing something in DYIY that I am seeing.
Naturally, I'd prefer to vote for the second option, but Something is still well deserving of a thumbs up — on the whole, it is a creative, tasteful, genuinely musical piece of work that just barely misses transcending its own genre limitations, and, like almost everything else done in the sphere of art-pop today, cannot help get sucked back into the same old 20th century.