Kelley Polar: Here in the Night
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
Kelley Polar’s flamboyant disco-pop debut Love Songs of the Hanging Garden was a Stylus favorite last winter. I waited for our staff fever to spread. It didn’t. I thought it might become last year’s Last Exit, net-sprawl sparked by a couple of great singles, maybe eventually just a “critic’s darling” but at least appreciated in that small circle. By year’s end, I realized maybe it was just something in the Stylus watercooler. Though it finished only 21 in our 2005 Albums List, a quick look at Pazz and Jop reveals that three of the record’s seven votes—out of the 795 voters—came from contributors to this funny little ‘zine.
A year later, Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens holds steady with those suddenly ubiquitous Junior Boys, the suddenly bargain-binned Postal Service, and the suddenly remarkable Hot Chip as one of the more dynamic designers in the long-closeted couture of electronic pop. But Kelley Polar, on the surface at least, is all Julliard by comparison (a metaphor made far easier by the fact he was once there to study the viola); he’s smooth and intemperate, pillowing his clap-happy gloom with strings and Moroder-bound disco bounce. He’s the opera phantom of the bunch; a hidden figure perhaps too lost in elegy to offer the simpler cries of hearbreak. Or maybe he just couldn’t do bedroom angst, so he brought his swoon to the floor.
Fittingly, “Here in the Night” sees Polar at his most libidinous. The slick push of static, bells, and fried-rubber bassline opens almost crudely; it’s a number offered by a stranger who’d barely glanced at you earlier. Surprising sure, but full of intrigue and promise given the gummy burn of “Cosmological Constancy” or the mockingbird noon of “Tyurangalila.” Whereas on much of Love Songs Polar seems to want no contact with his elegant discoscapes—to move in wave to tonal shifts but never touch down—here he tongues his thick-honey voice straight into “Night”’s odd synth pulses and clipped beats. He’s come-on as tune-out, speaking to himself through you, to you through the synthetic stammer of this place you both now occupy.
But every elevation eventually spills back to sea-level; likewise, ecstasy for more than a moment is plain, senseless, so spend yourself and return to what’s become regular, to how do you like your eggs and would you like fresh-ground pepper with that. But, still, you have to mark that moment with release—something that sets it apart from what led to it and the sleepy lull that covers it up—so you can begin to hope for another shot at the elusive. Polar knows this. It’s here, in “Night”’s gentle, operatic coda, where Polar perfects musical climax for a few seconds (thus, the column! Lovely!). He gives way to the track’s swift pull; he’s alone now, back turned to the rest of us, even to the music. The beats cut out quickly; they fade from Polar’s ears, then from stereo. He’s gone now, lost to anything but himself; the prominent bassline, long the track’s backbone, goes silent; pinging effects spread across the sudden emptiness, and he’s left moaning and turning his “ooooohs” into “aaaaaaaahs.” The strings slip around the edges, casting Polar in an all-too decadent light as his voice peters out and the song ends, almost unnoticed now. Like every such moment, it’s over before you note its passing. But after all, if Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens is an album George Costanza might happily find “ensconced in velvet,” these perfect final seconds of “Here in the Night” are sure to have you spot-cleaning by night’s end.