The term “poptimism” has been arising in the conversation around music criticism more and more the past few years. Albums like Beyoncé and 1989, which have received similar levels of critical acclaim to more traditionally critic-friendly styles like rock and R&B, have ignited a conversation about the prejudices and social implications of praising such “populist” music. Another effect this movement has had is to blur the lines between indie pop and the mainstream. Whereas bands like Dirty Projectors and Cults were once considered radio-ready, they now sound positively deformed, compared to the glistening synths of bands like CHVRCHES. This transition perfectly encapsulates the growth that Chairlift have undergone with Moth, emerging from their cocoon of fuzz and psychedelia into a colourful pop machine, and they’ve fashioned this new sound into a near-perfect album.
The echoing snare drum that ushers in the chorus of Unfinished Business sounds like something from a Phil Collins song. It’s big, and silly, but Chairlift make it work by executing it to perfection. The sound only plays three times during the song, and instead of being big or showy, it’s mixed in with other drum hits, and it sets the tone of airy transcendence that singer Caroline Polachek fulfills with her stunning vocal performance. This drum hit captures what makes Moth work as well as it does. It’s a remarkably economical album, never a note out of place, every sound rendered with clarity of purpose. The band’s work on Beyoncé has clearly paid dividends here. The percussion, which is the driving force of most of the songs, spins a web of sounds ranging from the grainy and organic, like the skittering beat on No Such Thing, which evokes an extreme close up of an insect walking in dirt, to the ethereal and crystalline, like the muted snare on opener Look Up, which builds from a faintly textured pulsing to a pounding hit inside of two and a half minutes.
Each song has its own distinct set of sounds and personality, with some being muted and subtle (Crying in Public), and some being boisterous and joyous (Ch-Ching). Ch-Ching was already one of the best singles of last year, and it holds up just as well on the album. It’s a marvellously tuneful display of creative songwriting, each hook more inventive than the last, yet also more catchy. The instrumental components are just as fun as the hooks, from the 808 drums, to the horns that chase the vocal melody in the verses. But it’s Polachek’s voice that pulls the song together. Her singing is virtuosic in it’s variety and confidence, and she delivers the entire song with a self aware swagger, that means that even though the chorus is literally just a chanted series of numbers (“27-99-23”, apparently the RGB code for the green of cash), it still feels like she’s singing about the energy of a generation.
In interviews, Polachek has stated that she feels the album is inspired by her life in New York, but when listened to in one sitting, it takes on greater meaning, forming a treatise about living life to the fullest and embracing honesty. On Crying in Public, she infuses a song about crying on the train with dignity and tenderness – “but you smile and call me “tough guy” / to the opposite effect”. On Polymorphing she challenges her paramour to clarify their relationship – “if this love was a pulse would you feel it?” – but she sings with such confidence and authority that it never sounds like she’s not in control. Romeo sees her encouraging men to compete for her heart – “if I win, you’re done with / but if you win, you win my heart”. Her tales of life in the city take on an exalted quality when placed to the impossible catchy music, feeling larger than life, and truly inspiring.
Moth is an album where just about every element comes together perfectly. Outside of Ottowa to Osaka stretching about a minute past its optimum running time, there’s not a word or sound out of place. It’s an album that feels pored over, and polished to a shine, yet still remarkably vibrant and alive. Moth is the first Chairlift album that no longer sounds like a sum of influences, but instead simply sounds like Chairlift, pared down to their core. It sets a template for pop-leaning indie acts to follow in the future, and they couldn’t ask for a better one.