On New LP ‘Moth,’ Chairlift Is Drawn to the Flame of New York City

Moth is Chairlift’s “New York” record. In interviews promoting the new album, out January 22 on Columbia, the Brooklyn-based, Colorado-born duo’s Caroline Polachek says they called the record Moth because it’s about a “soft thing in a hard place.” It’s symbolism any bright-eyed NYC transplant can understand; being drawn to the city’s bright lights, only to be hardened by its harsh winters, brutal cost of living, and Hunger Games level of competition. But New York is a town that rewards survivors, and Polachek and Patrick Wimberly’s latest LP is the song of the victors. Chairlift’s music has always exuded a favorable mix of hip, catchy, and quirky, and on Moth, they seem to have come to terms with their vulnerabilities, their mastery manifesting itself as the kind of cool confidence the comes only with experience.

This duality of vulnerability and confidence is all over Moth, from the more overt expressions like being so hopelessly in love that you can’t keep it together for the sake of others (“Crying in Public”) to the embrace of brutal competition of the New York hustle (“Getting what you want can be dangerous/ But that’s the only way I want it to be,” Polachek sings on “Ch-Ching“). It’s a vulnerable confidence born of a life lived drawn to the flame — having been burned before, and going on anyway (“I should know better than to take your love letters to heart,” she sings on “Moth To The Flame”). It’s all over the lyrics, and the symbolism on the album art and track listing is less than subtle. In an interview with GQ, she said: “We wanted to touch on the relentless optimism of moths. They continue and continue and continue and try again and try again and try again; this record touches on that feeling, whether it’s better for you or not, to just keep going.”

Moth is the second album Chairlift has recorded as a duo for Columbia; their debut, Does You Inspire You, featured founding member Aaron Pfenning, and was originally released on Kanine records. That record was re-released after the band signed with Columbia, and Pfenning would soon leave to focus on other projects. Early Chairlift records sported an indie bubblegum vibe that was taylor-made for the iPod commercial that gave them their first break, and their sophomore effort Something retained much of this endearing geekiness (see Polachek expertly toe the line between sexy and silly in the video for “Amanaemonesia”). But it seems that New York has rubbed off on them, and much of those quirky edges have been buffed out.

Despite tales of Romeos and lovelorn girls losing it on the train, Moth feels more mature than any other Chairlift record. Polachek has even matured as a vocalist, coming to the harsh realization that without being serious about taking care of her voice, singing these new songs she’d written on the road might destroy it. So she called up her childhood opera teacher, took a train out to Connecticut and resumed the voice lessons of her youth, working through compositions by Rachmaninoff, Handel, and Mozart. And those vocals are on full display, more exposed and less processed than they’ve ever been. Her voice is Moth‘s vulnerability expressed in a very physical way — over the Nile Rodgers-esque riff on “Show U Off,” she flexes range that we haven’t seen yet from her on Chairlift records. It’s always been gorgeous, breathy yet beautiful, sexy yet sensual. But now it feels stronger than ever, and it appears Queen Bey had something to do with it.

Photo by Tim Barber.
Photo by Tim Barber.

Chairlift may take four years in between each of their records — a luxury provided by major-label backing — but they’ve been far from idle. Wimberly stays busy mixing (Empress Of, Tune-Yards), remixing (TV on the Radio, Nite Jewel), and producing (Das Racist, Fort Lean, Kelela) records for other artists, and Polachek spent much of 2014 in support of Arcadia, the debut release of her solo project Ramona Lisa. They also famously produced a track, “No Angel,” for Beyoncé’s blockbuster self-titled album, an experience that breathed some new life into their songwriting process, and inspired Polachek’s approach to the vocals for Moth. In an interview with The Verge, she admits that the new record is more “physical,” and that it was inspired by the “body and power” of Beyoncé’s vocals on the track they wrote for her. “I wanted to be able to make more actual, physical sound with my own body, which I’d never been able to do before,” she said. “One of the goals we had when we started the record was making music for the body in a way we hadn’t done before.”

One of the more obvious expressions of this sentiment is in Moth‘s music videos; “Ch-Ching” is essentially an extended solo dance video, zeroing in on Polachek’s interpretive dance moves, choreographed by Korie Genius, and the Chungking Express homage the band made for “Romeo” is a frenetic rush of painted light. The song itself is inspired by the Greek myth of Atalanta, the goddess who would challenge potential suitors to a footrace for her hand, slaughtering the losers. But each of the record’s 10 tracks seems well-suited to movement, even the slower parts: it’s not hard for us to imagine peering through a scratched subway window, watching that woman crying on the train as it pulls out of the station.

On Something, Chairlift sounded fully realized, an ascendant band grasping control of its aesthetic, outgrowing the stigma of the very literal commercial success of its biggest hit. On Moth, they’re still the same band, just a more refined and sophisticated version. They’ve passed through the flame, been burned, and lived to tell the tale.