On hearing the more introspective songs of his friend and famed German composer Robert Schumann, the Austrian dramatic poet Franz Grillparzer said: “He has made himself a new ideal world in which he moves almost as he wills.”
Kelley Polar’s debut full length Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens is one of those new ideal worlds, a hand-stitched homage to the Romantic era’s lieder with roots in the melancholia chic of 17th century England. Whereas Schumann went wild with syphilis, threw himself into the chilly Rhine river after it all got a little too much to bear and later died alone and irrecoverably insane in an asylum near Bonn, Kelley Polar has sopped up the dreaded black bile with the glowing synchronicity of early 80’s R&B, Italo Disco and Moroder-like future dreams that spin the loneliness of alienation into the poetry of simply being alone, ravished by one’s own thoughts and feelings.
The ten four-minute nocturnes on Love Songs successfully map a path between the introspection of the bedroom and the group ecstasy of the dance floor; between the seemingly insurmountable distance of outer space and the inner space of the dream or the terrestrial space of the country yard. After recently attending the prestigious Julliard School of Music as a viola student and releasing a handful of alluring singles on New York’s Environ Records over the last few years, splitting his time between deep solitude on a New Hampshire farm (where Love Songs was recorded) and the bustle of Manhattan, he has pulled these tensions taut in his music.
Rather than sounding muddled or overextended, though the album’s conceptual contradictions are often its most enchanting assets, making constellations out of street lamps, transforming disco-influenced string passages into coiling vines wrapping around your waist, morphing the moon into a mirror ball, ripping the roof off dance night at the planetarium and letting the starlight spill in, a warm, crisp bliss.
Kelley Polar’s shy vocals at times recall Arthur Russell or a more sheepish Junior Boys, but without the primordial wonder of the former or the plastic tear anomie of the latter. Once they sink in, however, Polar’s vocals and lyrics prove to be something entirely different.
Repeated lines like “I can’t wait until you’re back here in the dark with me” or “I’ll love her ‘til she makes me lose my mind” are romantic to the point of asexuality, transcending our messy bodies, invoking trance-like cosmic passions verging on obsession; when he sinks into terrestrial love on “Ashamed of Myself,” he does it with a quietly cathartic disgust, confessing “I don’t want to share you, I just want to possess, you make me ashamed of myself” against a stiff-necked Prince-like beat that diffuses into polyrhythmic percussion and string flourishes, an eerie blend of the orgiastic and tightly restrained.
Produced by Environ label founder and Metro Area member Morgan Geist, Love Songs falls perfectly into the Eviron Records aesthetic: a highly detailed but economical pastiche of organic-sounding disco and dance lightly carbonated by electronics but more concerned with harmonic richness and subtly intoxicating textures. Still, the difficulty of assigning Love Songs to any particular category is that it’s too “acoustic” and strongly song-based to fit comfortably alongside contemporary electronic dance music and too moody and sincere to resonate with the fixed-pose meta-referential dance pop of say, Annie, Robyn, or the Knife.
Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens is the sound of disco falling asleep in an open copy of Confessions of an English Opium Eater, bloodied hearts splashing in the milky way, and the comforts of the resolutely melancholy, a dream all to itself; semper Polar, semper dolens.
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