Caroline Polachek in Concert: A Door to Another Door to a Window into your Soul

Illustrated by Anasthasia Shilov

This past Sunday, Feb. 20, Caroline Polachek brought her Pang tour to the doors of College Street Music Hall, carefully crafting a spiritual experience for all in attendance. 

As Caroline came on stage, lights projected as a cone of beams into the audience. At the same time, a foggy mist emanated from the stage. A wrought-iron fence was projected onto the screen behind her. The pearly gates of heaven appeared before the audience; for as long as she commanded our eyes, we were lifted somewhere otherworldly. 

This portal to another world was opened with the first few notes to her 2019 debut album’s title track “Pang.” A few mechanical beats gave way to our first taste of her vocals, her lyrics coated in her typical glossy delivery. All fears of her intricate studio production failing to translate exactly to a live performance were quelled: Caroline Polachek was a true vocalist—and a damn good one at that. 

The word ‘pang’ aptly characterized the atmosphere she created while performing the track. Each time she uttered the word, her entire body moved with the passion it represented. She thrusted her hands towards her chest and nearly keeled over with each burst — each pang — of sound. The song “Pang” was itself the clearest moment of mimetic performance; at this point, we were still blithely unaware of Polachek’s keen physicality. 

The stage itself was remarkably empty. A sea of smoke and nothingness, her musicians were islands unto themselves. Caroline’s vocals were supported by a keyboard, with bar chimes, bass, and a plugged-in acoustic guitar, but the stage was otherwise completely barren. 

Polachek followed up “Pang” with “New Normal” and one of her largest hits, “Hit Me Where It Hurts.” The latter was a definite crowd favorite, though there were certainly times where her lower register was overpowered by the track behind her. Next came “Bunny Is A Rider,” her elusive 2021 smash-hit, widely regarded as one of the year’s best tracks. 

“I’m so nonphysical,” Polachek sang, her words dripping with irony. The most impressive thing about her performance was the concrete physicality she gave  to the dreamy sounds filling the venue. Her voice was as ethereal as it sounds on her record, yet live, she was able to imbue it with an effusive tangibility. Her hands moved constantly, every bend of her finger perfectly syncopated with the sounds she created. Every single note, beat, and movement throughout the night was fully and absolutely intentional—Polachek understood the workings of her music inside and out, and resolved to tell the audience her story. As she sang an unreleased song, “Sunsets,” she waved her hand above her head to the exact tonal cues of her vibrato. I could imagine her in a stadium filled with tens of thousands of people, commanding their attention as she did ours—and she has. Supporting Dua Lipa on her Future Nostalgia tour, Polachek is no stranger to playing sold-out stadiums.

Yet before us at College Street Music Hall, she disclosed that she preferred to play smaller venues, where she could “see all of our faces.” This is where my self-reflection began: somewhere between the electric guitar interlude of “I Give Up” and the gossamer whispers of “Look at Me Now,” I was stupefied in a state of introspection. At this point, I was standing against the barricade (being 5 feet tall with New York-trained pushing skills has its benefits every once in a while), Polachek was on her knees just a few feet away, her eyes unmoving from ours. Someone next to me — for what was probably the third of five times that night — cried out,

“I love you!”

But did they really? What is the nature of the relationship between performer and audience member? This show was the first I had been to since February of 2020 — exactly two years ago — and naturally, my ideas of intimacy have changed since then. I was somehow made uncomfortable by this person professing their love to Caroline; yet at the same time, the feeling in my chest during her set felt warm and familiar and a hell of a lot like what I imagine love feels like. 

I looked up. Polachek was telling us how excited she was to be playing in Connecticut, her home state, for the first time. She faced toward the side where I was standing and the thought popped into my head for a minute:Oh my God, she sort of looks like me. This was not actually true; our physical similarities don’t go much farther than the fact that we have large eyes and a similar manner of smiling, but at that moment, maybe I was searching for a sense of community or belonging, somewhat alone among the sea of people there. 

My musings were cut short as Polachek started to perform “Insomnia” — her least streamed song off of Pang, but certainly the single most entrancing moment of the entire night. She stood on one side of the stage, bluish-purple lights pointed directly at her, and she broke into an almost Liz Fraser type of unintelligible vocalization, her voice ascending effortlessly and landing upon an ethereal whistle tone. All the while, she waved her hands in front of her, almost as if casting a spell over a cauldron. A collective chill fell over the audience — we were captivated.

Polachek went on to perform another round of hits and fan favorites. Her newest song, “Billions,” probably sounded the most distinct live as opposed to on its recording, yet she was still able to merge electronica, pop, and indie into a single cohesive — and beautiful — sonic experience. On the ballad “Hey Big Eyes,” Polachek imitated the recording’s echo effect of her vocals by moving the microphone closer and farther from her face to create dynamics in the sound. She finished the set with her most popular song “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” a pop tune about heartbreak, jealousy, and loneliness that was highly relatable for the largely college age audience she sang to.

The most touching moment of the night came at the beginning of her two-song encore. She began telling the audience about a past nightmare about being caught in danger on a military airplane, jumping out, and being caught by a parachute. She described the parachute pulling her back and forth, from Los Angeles, back over the ocean, saying that in the dream, she prepared to die and it “felt like returning to some sort of home.” The parachute finally brought her to some suburban parking lot before she woke up, and so “Parachute,” Pang’s closing track, was born. After “Parachute,” she finished with a fan favorite “Door,” singing––

“You open up a door, to another door, to another door, to another door” 

––and as the song closed, so did the portal she had so masterfully opened at the beginning of her set.

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