‘How does a city decide who belongs on its streets?’ is asked at the beginning of Stranger by Joanne Pollock, the Canadian artist’s debut full-length album. The idea that you can wander a city’s streets but not ‘live’ on them, the experience of being lonely and emotionally dislocated from your surroundings and the people in them, is at the core of this album, as it is also in Olivia Laing’s recent book, The Lonely City. Both works had a similar genesis, born from a change in living locations and circumstances; Laing finding herself abruptly rudderless, wandering the streets of New York following a break with a partner she had moved her life to be with; Pollock also feeling displaced by a move, her sense of self broken from its roots, becoming a stranger to herself. Both Laing and Pollock examine the state of being prompted by these ruptures with fascinating words and music.
Released on Venetian Snare’s Timesig imprint (its parent label is Planet Mu), Stranger only superficially and lightly resembles the brutal end-in-itself complexity of Venetian Snares’ violently mangled junglism; Pollock preferring a nuanced, emotionally engaging and sophisticated electronic pop. The similarities mainly exist in an affinity for intricate arrangements: Stranger’s productions, while retaining a hook-laden immediacy and sonic richness, are full of digressing channels and roads branching off, sometimes taken, sometimes not, like the decision-points that have inspired the album. Pollock is an auteur-like almost one-person band on Stranger, appropriately given the subject matter; handling the vocals, song-writing and production, with a few short but valuable contributions from others, like the sharp glass-cracking falsetto from Sarah Jo Kirsch that full-stops You Know I Would Do Anything, along with, at other points, extra vocals from Tesia Rhind and guitar from Paige Drobot.
Although the songs are diverse, what unites them is the choice of sounds; for most of them cold machine-precision is effectively paired with warm throbs of bass and neon-bright synth-smears. Beats employed as pops, clicks and claps. Pollock’s vocals weaving deftly through the rhythms but occasionally left unadorned, sitting as isolated and lonely as the lyrics. High-points are many but few recent albums heard by Ears For Eyes have opened with tracks as immediately involving as Carnival and Melt Myself; a hard/soft duo that pulls the listener in. The firework-burst chorus of Myself Apart, a disturbing tale of identity-loss, a blurring of where your self’s boundaries formerly were, a loss of distinctness from other people and things. The clatter-step of You Know I Would Do Anything, 16-bit video-game beeps butting up against Fennesz-style fuzz-storms. The artfully deconstructed wobbly garage skippiness of Never Been You. The beat-patterns throughout are often dizzingly complicated but never get too adrift from the tight pop song-structures.
Pollock is a brilliant composer, keeping her verses tense and taught, minimal and chilly, then bursting the songs open into effusive choruses, a technique that flash-burns the lyrics on your mind; the palette of sounds broadening out with the words into vivid dawns from monochrome gloom. The yearning and sadness of the words blooming with highly defined sharpness. This method may be as old as song-writing but it’s used to great effect here, keeping Stranger consistently emotionally engaging without becoming wearying.
Stranger and The Lonely City are two journeys through loneliness and the distances between yourself and others that might help you locate yourself a little; the realisation that the gap from where you are and where you might want to be is a rich space, a state-of-being as worthy of examination as any other.