Caroline Polachek is a rare talent amid the banality of modern pop
When Caroline Polachek began touring her debut album Pang in 2019, her budget was limited to a painted backdrop and no live instruments. Things were a little different on Tuesday night at London’s Hammersmith Apollo: the American singer took to a stage transformed into a volcanic landscape, replete with crimson sunsets, sand dunes, an elaborate digital backdrop, and a fiery three-piece band.
Polachek first found fame with indie group Chairlift, whose single Bruises soundtracked an iPod advert in 2008, earning them a deal with Columbia. But she’s currently riding a new wave of acclaim as a visionary avant-pop artist, the kind who tours with Dua Lipa and writes for Beyoncé. She joins a crew of stars she calls “alternative with a capital A” – artists such as Kate Bush, Fiona Apple, Christine and the Queens, and Charli XCX.
Tuesday night felt like a special occasion, and not just because it was Valentine’s Day. The sold-out show also celebrated Polachek’s second album, Desire, I Want To Turn Into You, released that day to coincide with the romantic holiday, and the mood in the room was one of love. Though the album had only been out a few hours, the crowd appeared thrilled that these new songs formed the bulk of the setlist.
Of course, several long-established singles supplied a good deal of energy, from opening stomp Welcome To My Island – invigorated by the live drums and guitars – to flamenco-meets-Penny-Lane hit Sunset, which sparked extended applause. She brought out esteemed Scottish bagpipe player Brìghde Chaimbeul to perform on latest single Blood and Butter, and tossed Valentine’s chocolates into the crowd at the end of the main set before playing her biggest hit, the synth-driven So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings. Elsewhere, minimal ballad Hopedrunk Everasking foregrounded her quicksilver vocals, honed through years of bel canto opera training and often mistaken for autotune.
This potpourri of styles and sounds – Polachek is also liberal with breakbeats, and took the current 1990s revival to a new level by featuring Dido on a track – ought to be a mess. Her artistry sometimes skirts pretension, her stage banter is occasionally too earnest, and the meticulous production of her records can be easily lost in a live setting. Yet she remains a future-facing artist with a consistent identity and a compelling live presence, traits that are increasingly tricky to achieve in the contemporary pop world, and among the 5000-strong London crowd, it seemed that Polachek was everyone’s Valentine.