Caroline Polachek at Eventim Apollo, London

Support: Doss
February 14, 2023 at Eventim Apollo, London

It was Valentine’s Day. Love was in the air. Sadly, not because I was with a romantic partner for this lovelorn, hapless reviewer, but because Caroline Polachek was playing London that night, on none other than the release date of her sophomore album under her own name.

Only hours prior to the concert, Polachek had independently released Desire, I want to turn into you. One of my most anticipated albums of 2023, the album delivered (and then some) on all the promise that had gone before. From a long, seemingly never-ending – and arduous, to be perfectly frank – album roll out, with the first single ‘Bunny is a Rider’ having landed on streaming services in July 2021, 2023’s Valentine’s Day was an orgasmic release; a tantalising, thrilling, fulfilling culmination of a lot of hard work [and pent-up passion].

Before Polachek took to the stage, the London crowd were treated to a support set from Doss (real name Aimee Bowen). An artist who has risen to prominence post-pandemic, with a meteoric wave of plaudits from big names – including, of course, Polachek herself – I’m yet to really love their recorded output and live Bowen did little to persuade me. A blur of breakbeat and synth-pop the tracks don’t seem up-tempo enough to be hype for a dance audience and yet they’re not complex or unique enough for the art-pop audience present that night.

That said, there were those in the crowd that were clearly fans pre-concert, who reacted to the material, with newest track ‘Jumpin’’ (set to be released just days after this gig), getting the most from the gathering crowd. Perhaps with this new track Bowen has stumbled across the alchemy needed to convert new faces to her music – it’s not a coincidence that this certainly leans into dance-pop far more than other work, and with a slew of remixes coming, perhaps the acronym will become more familiar to us all in the months and years to come.

Caroline walked on stage to not only the usual acclaim most headlining artists will enjoy, but to genuine heartfelt applause and shrieks of joy. As well as an evening serving as the album’s launch (finally!), it seems to have been a “coming home” moment, too. Although Polachek is very much an artist ensconced in the New York pop, art and fashion scene of New York, as well as comfortable in her native country’s West Coast too, she has made a second or third home in the UK’s capital.

It was in that city that much of the record was written, produced, and even recorded. In many ways, then, it seems to have indeed been more natural for Desire… to have launched globally from London than her home city. The British capital seems to have increasingly regained this notoriety in recent years, with 2023 already being host to New Zealand experimental-pop queen Kimbra launching her brilliant-if-inconsistent new LP, A Reckoning at the Lafayette, and teen-meme turned hyper/alt-pop queer icon Rebecca Black choosing Heaven in the heart of the English metropolis to serve as the stage to inaugurate their unfairly-castigated Let Her Burn debut. Interestingly, those two, have also independently released their own records. Full power!

The evening began, logically, with the opening track to the new album, the fabulous song and final single, ‘Welcome to My Island.’ With a tropical backdrop that morphed throughout the show, it set the tone of the evening incredibly well, getting everyone dancing and immediately transported to sun, sand, and tropical cocktails, rather than the cold and damp climate waiting just outside the Apollo’s doors. Over the next hour or so, Polachek played every single song off the new record, almost exactly in the order of the LP itself, interspersed with six songs from her wonderful debut, Pang. The fact she played the record almost front to back could be attributed to the fact we were a part of an album-launch evening, but I would argue it pays better tribute to the quality of the underlying album itself. Desire… takes you on a journey and to shuffle its emotional cards would be to confuse the story Polachek wants to tell.

The aforementioned ‘Bunny is a Rider’ is a strange, sparse, almost unsettling bop, as self-love and the search for love gets conflated with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, whereas the hip-shaking follow-up, ‘Sunset’ is the same tale told in euphoric overtones and lush calypso instrumentation. Polachek’s backing band were supreme all night long, and live it brought home quite how much emphasis and reliance her tracks have on bass. I was disappointed to find that rising star Blu DeTiger, who has often served as Polachek’s bassist, wasn’t on duty on the European leg of ‘The Spiralling Tour’, but it was still played impeccably and with real personality.

Throughout the entire concert the standout, unsurprisingly, was Polachek’s voice. Classically trained, it’s still extraordinary to see first-hand the breath and pitch control that she can summon. It is in stark contrast to so many [still very talented] pop vocalists out there, falling into the same category as one may marvel at Kristin Hayter, Laure Le Prunenec, or – perhaps more pertinent to this area of music – Alicia Keys when witnessing them perform live. Whether it’s the seemingly impossible transitions across octaves for serene standout ‘Billions’ or the curious sliding lilt for new-favourite dark-horse ballad ‘Crude Drawing of an Angel’, her voice held steady and true, despite how excited she clearly was, pulling some real Kate-Bush-come-21st-century shapes on stage.

The off-kilter dancey ‘Fly to You’ is played wonderfully, but sans any guest appearences from the unlikely alliance of Grimes and Dido. However, we are treated to Scottish bagpipe extraordinaire, Brìghde Chaimbeul, guesting on the incredible ‘Blood and Butter’, which served as a real highlight of the night. The brilliant song in its’ own right and TikTok megahit ‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’ closed the main set to rapturous applause until Polachek disappeared for some time, before sauntering back to the stage for an encore with a costume change to boot (of course!).

Looking resplendent, we were treated to ‘Hopedrunk Everlasting’, another sumptuous, moving highlight of a song, before the band launched into ‘Door’ from Pang, a surprise hit and my personal favourite from the debut. Before the last song of the evening, that glorious voice finally cracked…  Not mid-note, but as she spoke to the audience and to those loved ones in attendance, including her partner, as well as Danny L Harle – in attendance – her close music collaborator and producer of the new record, with whom she so clearly has formed a great personal and creative bond. As the concert came to a close, it seemed emotion finally took over; a dawning that not only was this special night going to end, but a special date in her career was too – a fruition and culmination of artistic endeavour and personal strife. (Caroline lost her father during the pandemic which was also the backdrop to the album’s gestation.)

Finishing with live favourite ‘Smoke’ – a song that above all else on the new album saw its creation almost borne out across multiple dates on previous tours, morphing as it went – there were tears in Polachek’s eyes as the last notes rang out and five thousand plus bodies cheered in appreciation and shared a fleeting moment of love and goodwill towards a rare figure in pop who is artist first, with any other considerations or pop clichés a distant second.

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