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Poliša - When We Stay Alive (Album Review)

Thursday, 13 February 2020 Written by Helen Payne

Photo: Zoe Prinds-Flash

Poliça’s life-affirming fourth album, ‘When We Stay Alive’, was written on either side of a debilitating accident. In 2018, vocalist Channy Leaneagh fell from her roof while clearing ice, breaking her back. But this record isn’t about the physical or mental damage caused by the incident; it’s a personal documentation of the healing process, how to rewrite your own narrative, and what happens when you survive.

The 10 tracks dip and dive between feelings of tension and jubilation, highlighting the mixture of emotions felt when trying to record an LP in a back brace. Fold Up combines buzzing synths and a skittering drum loop to create an eerie sense of Leaneagh’s fear of distress, which, with its descending glissandos, could easily be used to soundtrack the climax of an apocalyptic movie. 

In contrast, its successor Feel Life explores the idea of coming to terms with death, almost wishing it with a calming, bubbling beat and buoyant melody that asks “why won’t you stick?”.

Opener Driving is the main highlight of the LP, though, drawing the listener in with an anxiety-filled haze and a looming sense of dread. 

Its poignant lyrics bring us back to reality with specific, visceral sensations of being human, like snow on the tip of your tongue, the feeling of running through grass with bare legs, plus images of carnivorous birds and dying nerves. Furthermore, Be Again looks at reclaiming your own body after experiencing a brush with death, in the context of newfound confidence, a sense of purpose and lust for life.

The accident doesn’t take over the whole album, however. As with previous Poliça records, there are elements of deeper humanity explored. The comforting Steady ponders the strengths and weaknesses of parents over an acoustic guitar and a wiggling refrain, and the steel drum-esque warbles of TATA are about lead pollution in Leaneagh’s community in Minneapolis.

Throughout ‘When We Stay Alive’, producer Ryan Olson hangs back. The sparse beats, which could look like a lazy inability to keep up with Leanagh’s forward thinking, are actually a polite invitation, leaving room for her to reclaim a musical space and find her footing again.

The primary bulk of the songwriting was inspired by Leaneagh’s fall, making Poliça’s latest output an emotional and, at times, tear-jerking record. Despite this, it’s often difficult to grasp the personal aspects when the rest of the band is made up of beats and bleeps. Although more than competent at creating a dark, brooding atmosphere, the human importance of the personal lyrics gets tangled in this computerised context.

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