Last year’s debut from Minneapolis indie-electronica band Poliça thrived in the interplay between the band’s equal and opposite halves.
The two drummers and bass player laid the foundation of an art-rock R&B, while Ryan Olson’s synthesizers and beats and Channy Leaneagh’s adventurously manipulated vocals created the album’s space-age sheen.
But while Give You The Ghost was a mostly subdued and meditative album, its songs living (despite the two drummers) in a sort of natural constraint, the band’s follow-up, Shulamith, is hyper and edgy, driven by a manic tension that pushes both Poliça’s physical and synthetic spheres into new realms. Even before the album’s release, the striking cover image and two videos of tangled meanings began making the argument that Shulamith is the work of a band untethered from its past, weaving a sense of conflict into the core of its songs.
The bloody imagery of the cover—the smudged red contrasting with the deep blue background—highlights the tension in the songs, while the title functions as both an homage to radical feminist Shulamith Firestone and an obscure Old Testament reference about the complicated nature of womanhood. The graphically violent video for “Tiff,” which Leaneagh calls “a portrait of a woman as her own worst enemy,” is a surreal and sadistic depiction of torture—beating and waterboarding—that portrays her as victim and tormentor both.
This duality, though never so explicit, echoes throughout the album, with Leaneagh’s lyrics turning on questions of identity, desire, vanity, self-reliance, sacrifice and the roles established in pursuit of (or retreat from) romance.
The album’s other pre-release video, for “Warrior Lord,” is split between underwater shots and woodsy imagery. The video, like the song, advances a different sort of tension, its overall sense of calm never quite able to entirely conceal an undercurrent of danger.
Entering the album mindful of those statements and themes, it’s easy to embrace the spell of Shulamith’s splashy opener, “Chain My Name.” The song extends Poliça’s sound significantly from Give You The Ghost, with the insistent driving drums and more prominent bassline balanced by quirky, unsettling synthesizer melodies.
Next, the album turns back toward to the eerie, suspenseful sound of Poliça’s debut with “Smug,” its jittery beat and Leaneagh’s icy, detached vocals sounding like a 21st century update of the sexy-dark trip-hop mold. “Vegas” and “Warrior Lord” follow, similar in tempo and tone, before Poliça makes another jump, the gritty synth-rock of “Very Cruel,” swinging from spare to chaotic.
Like on Give You The Ghost, Leaneagh’s voice is deployed to emphasize its instrumental qualities, even at the expense of her words. Turned, twisted and auto-tuned, her vocals are layered, moved around the mix and near-constantly manipulated, yet manage to be expressive without being easily understood.
Even most of the album’s oft-repeated lines, like Leaneagh’s embrace of her own contradictory nature on “Torre”—“Who is the starlit, I am / Who is the harlot, I am / Who is the diamond, I am / Who is the lion, I am”—need the online reference at the band’s website to decode.
One exception is “Tiff,” which apart from its video still manages to convey the agony of self-defeating behavior. “I’m a pawn in the hype machine, you’re a pawn in the caring scheme / We’ll take one for the losing team, all the hearts and long lost dreams,” Leaneagh sings, before being joined by Justin Vernon (Leaneagh and Olson’s one-time bandmate in the collective Gayngs), unintrusive as he adds a little celebrity polish.
“Matty” anchors the album’s closing stretch, with drummers Ben Ivascu and Drew Christopherson and Chris Bierden on bass making some of their loudest, boldest contributions to the record, particularly in the explosive latter stretch. Playing up the album’s strengths, “Matty” would have been a more fitting closer than the tame “So Leave,” but that’s a minor quibble in sequencing.
Despite its success, Give You The Ghost only hinted at what Poliça can do. Shulamith is a wilder, looser ride, both more experimental and more fully realized. “Go ahead and play for keeps,” as Leaneagh sings on “Tiff,” has become Poliça’s guiding mantra.