Poliça Unpack Trauma on When We Stay Alive

The synth-pop group don’t shy away from messiness and chaos on their difficult album

Music Reviews Poliça
Poliça Unpack Trauma on When We Stay Alive

When We Stay Alive opens with a wild ride. Frontwoman Channy Leaneagh is driving, quaking with turbulence, as she predicts what’s in store: “Tasting blood of the violence to come.” The track, in all its grisly carnage, isn’t one of defeat; instead, it echoes with palpable appetite. “See how she’s leading,” Leaneagh recites on the track’s chorus. She wades through the filth of modernity, noticing rot in the eyes of a passersby and imbibing in the ash of the dead. It’s all very Baudelaire; like his poem “The Carcass,” Leaneagh’s “want” for survival arises from the sewage of life.

Since 2016’s United Crushers, Poliça have centered the political landscape in their sound, in contrast to their original two albums which explored cultural hot topics through a personal lens. When We Stay Alive isn’t really either of those things, but is kind of a blend of both ideas—it’s an intensely personal record, one about trauma and the impossibility of safety in a rapidly darkening world. You could read these ideas as political, in the way that we can politicize our own bodies, our stories.

But the album is moreso a naturalistic account of experience as opposed to the sweeping, zoomed out approach on United Crushers, giving the record a less pedantic, more raw sense of authenticity. It doesn’t sound like a record someone set out to make for the purpose of highlighting issues of social justice, inequality or police brutality, and it instead toys with complex, political ideas from a first-person perspective. It feels very much on the ground, and avoids the flippant, hands-up nature of some of the tracks from Music For The Long Emergency.

Poliça is scuzzy unlike ever before, a little rough, a little dirty—the record sounds, at times, like maladaptive coping, and other times like an eager joyful embracing of trauma. The production of When We Stay Alive is often inconsistent: Some of the band’s best songs to date are here, and at other times it all feels confused, perhaps willfully so. “TATA” quakes with steelpan, a new percussive sound for a group branded on double-drums, while “Fold Up” never seems to take off—Leaneagh’s voice is too quiet, battling against another faded vocal track.

Frontwoman Channy Leaneagh discusses the album as if it was made as a form of therapy: After a fall from her roof that left her in a brace for months, she was encouraged by her doctor to rewrite her story. When We Stay Alive represents that rewrite, but it doesn’t sound revisionist—it sounds quite honest, and often stumbles over its own pain and anxiety as it trips towards healing. These imperfections, though, are what give the record character and a sharp personality. In a way, it functions as a question and response: What are my true feelings, and what is the process for disseminating that?

These songs are not perfect because there is no perfect way to recover. You can hear the anger and frailty infused in “Steady,” which sounds like a lullaby sung at a child’s bedside about Leaneagh’s shortcomings as a mother. It’s so very human—the fault doesn’t lie in Leaneagh’s child-rearing skills, but instead in the fractured state of the globe. But even knowing that, it’s difficult to not blame yourself for capriciousness of day-to-day-life.

The record often explores what happens when we’re all used up: Where do we go when there’s no fight left? You can hear it on the delicate “Feel Life,” where Leaneagh’s voice flits in and out of focus. It’s a nervous confession of weakness, a rare case of self-attributed apostasy: “Know I am nothing / Strangled in misery to find my home / Knowing I am nothing.” With frigidity, Leaneagh casts herself into the light, plain and fractured, flickering with forlorn tenderness.

The album’s most shocking moment is its centerpiece “Little Threads,” which follows directly after “Feel Life.” The track is mixed unlike any other Poliça track, featuring garbled, distant vocals. And then, in a moment of staunch clarity, Leaneagh’s voice comes to the foreground, backed only by staticy percussion, ungilded unlike we have ever heard her before: “You leave me wanting / You leave me chasing after fire.” Yes, she runs back to hide under gauzy blankets of autotune, but here Poliça manage to surprise in a visceral way, deploying a competent play on expectations and a twist of established aesthetic.

It’s here that When We Stay Alive turns. If “Little Threads” is a call to action, then the rest of the record manifests as that chase. This is where Leaneagh politicizes the self: her body, her desire, child-rearing and the radical truth of existence. Leaneagh once called radical feminist writer Shulamith Firestone her “pop star,” naming Poliça’s second album after her. In her book The Dialectic of Sex, Firestone writes of the mythic uprising that must happen for true societal change: “It is only after we have integrated the dark side of the moon into our world view that we can begin to talk seriously of universal culture.” Leaneagh is ready for that sea change, prepared to embody ugliness for the purpose of revolution as she cuts down disappointing men and revels in chaos on “Blood Moon.”

Maybe that’s the only way to feel safe in the world of today: not to be fair or charitable, but to embrace the stench of death. It’s upending, to say the least, and often makes When We Stay Alive an uncomfortable listen, but Poliça sound like they’ve finally got it figured out. Like Firestone, whether they’re misguided or not is neither here nor there—at least they are trying, which is more than many can say.

Revisit Poliça’s 2012 Daytrotter session:

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