Annot(e)tations is a column by Austin Nguyen that shines a light on the hidden gems of recently released albums or singles that may have flown under your radar. This week, he discusses Caroline Polachek’s “Look At Me Now.”
A broken heart and a tuned guitar — that’s all you really need to write a song, right? I mean, at least that’s what Ed Sheeran has proved to us through his career, strumming on a stool for his stadium tours and making the guitar near synonymous with piano balladry (“Photograph,” “The A Team,” the list goes on and on).
Of course, he’s not the only perpetrator; from other anodyne name-brand radio stars (Camila Cabello’s “All These Years”) to Critic-Certified indie darlings (Soccer Mommy’s “Flaw”), the acoustic instrument has become a trope of romancing or regret. Ed Sheeran, however, seems to have benefitted the most from plucking the sap between those six strings, establishing a paradigm that has lasted a near decade.
What makes Caroline Polachek’s “Look At Me Now” so refreshing, as a result, is how she sculpts that mold into her own vision, a lens equally colored with hope as it is with nostalgia, the present as it is with the past.
The track (her newest single from the soon-to-be-released album “Pang”) might not have the pointillistic poetry or leave-it-all-on-the-floor vocals of Julien Baker, but there’s something else sublime to be said about simplicity, how Polachek breaks away from her own signature sound of synth-laden production yet still finds herself in guitar chords and blunt one-liners.
Shifting between the anxieties of a younger self (“Will you be a shipwreck or a star?”) and the self-assurance of the present (“Gonna stay right here & face the storm”), much of “Look At Me Now” is a time capsule created through words, but somehow, with Polachek’s magic touch, the song sounds like one too.
The guitar seems to vacillate between time just as much as Polachek’s lyrics do, affected with just enough reverb to be both blurred by the haze of memory and distinct with the clarity of the present all at once, while the arpeggiated synths at the end of each chorus become glimmers of the future, fluorescent little sparks we carry within ourselves knowing that our story isn’t over yet.
Lyrically, there are times when Polachek’s words come off as safe and trite, when the impersonality of her past aliases (Chairlift, Ramona Lisa, CEP) seems to bleed through. Lines like “trying to find the light switch in the dark” could have been delivered by any auditioning, self-proclaimed singer-songwriter on “America’s Got Talent,” and the bridge takes a “Fight Song” approach to empowerment, ever so slightly less prosaic than Rachel Platten’s Disney-friendly hyphenations (“take-back-my-life song”). But “Look At Me Now” also boasts some of Polachek’s most poignant lines to date. Whereas “Door” and other past songs seemed muddled and vague (“Girl in a sweater/ Perpetual novice”), it’s impossible to miss the pinching reality of the artist’s strongest songwriting: “‘Have you not been sleeping?’/ How could I be?” and “Said I’d never leave you/ But here we are.”
Each line encapsulates that adage of how “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” of how time can break promises and braid paths together and apart. And that’s the true singularity of “Look At Me Now,” the reason for its sui generis qualities.
The song isn’t just some excerpt from a day-in-the-life diary that was fished out from a box’s bric-a-brac; here, the pages are weathered and sunbaked, their corners torn, but the ink of the story is written anew.