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Review: On ‘Moth,’ Chairlift Are Indeed That Kind of Band, Mama

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: January 22, 2016
Label: Columbia

It makes sense that fire would be a recurring lyrical theme in Brooklyn duo Chairlift’s brand of ornately produced pop. Their synths flicker and tease, their bass pops and smolders, and the vocals of frontwoman Caroline Polachek crackle, screaming from out of nowhere and dying unexpectedly. Most importantly, the final product glowsan incandescent, unpredictable thing whose hum emanates color and warmth. Their first two albums — 2008’s Does You Inspire You and (particularly) 2012’s Something — contained some of the most tangible, palpable pop music produced this century, yet also some of the hardest to get a grasp on.

Something was one of the year’s best pop releases, a collection of deeply felt and serpentine-structured sugar eruptions that, at their best, sounded something like Kate Bush conducting Yello Magic Orchestra — ensuring that Chairlift would safely eclipse any unfair labeling as just another couple of twee Apple-pitchers. In the four years since, Polachek has gotten married, released the solo album Arcadia (under the pseudonym Ramona Lisa), and was handpicked by Beyoncé to serve as part of the #Hive-mind behind her surprise self-titled meteorite, co-writing and -producing the breathy fan favorite “No Angel” — a ballad that shared its red-zoned emoting and sonic intimacy with the finest Chairlift gems.

Aside from being a mixed entomological metaphor, it’d be unfair to say that third album Moth represents a chrysalis-hatching for Chairlift — Something was far too bold and volatile to imply any such remaining cocoon. But the pair’s confidence is clearly at an all-time high, particularly for Polachek, who has said that she was unwittingly inspired to write the album’s strutting lead single “Ch-Ching” after, yes, being tabbed to work on Beyoncé. Aside from the album’s literal cash-registering — sounds the singer/songwriter was no doubt hearing seeing those historic first-week sales — the song drips with veteran swagger in every Western whistle hook and trap-drum spit, as Polachek self-motivates: “Nobody will help you till you go and help yourself / Take it and don’t wait for it to come from someone else.”

That self-assuredness is echoed throughout Moth, which tightens up the exploding-LED synth-pop of Something into a a tighter, funkier ten-track collection. “Romeo,” a growling three-minute pacer built around the same ticking-beat tension as the previous album’s “Amanaemonesia,” teases a lover to literally catch Polachek if he can (“Put on your running shoes, I’m ready to go”). “Show U Off” complements its Prince-tweaking title with one of the duo’s most convulsing beats, and a lyric that challenges a secret lover to step out into the open with her, the jazzy conviction of the track presenting the most persuasive argument. And the album’s most explicitly vulnerable track — “Moth to the Flame,” in which Polachek gleefully cops to being unable to resist the wrong guy’s kavorka — is also the strongest, a disco-lite thumper anchored by Chairlift’s most infectious chorus, with a recurring spoken-word breakdown that marks pop’s sultriest moment of early 2016: “He’s that kind of man, mama.”

The most impressive thing about Moth is the way it manages to wrap a more compact frame around Chairlift’s spiraling colors without dulling the final product. Polachek’s voice is as expressive and unrestrained as ever — particularly on breakup-for-now track “Unfinished Business,” where she stretches the title phrase into about a dozen syllables of gut-wrenched wailing — and the album’s emotional highs and lows are as wild in their oscillation as on their first two albums. But the duo’s flame, burning as brightly and violently as ever, no longer threatens to spread from the hearth and engulf the whole house. “Cool as a fire,” now more than ever.