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Pure Tone

Caroline Polachek’s instrumental album, ‘Drawing the Target Around the Arrow,’ relieves us of the burdens of language

When Caroline Polachek sings, her voice relays detectable information. There is a foundation of classical training, deep knowledge of a half-century's span of popular trends, and surprising elaborations that are sometimes arcane, sometimes global in origin. Polachek is a perennial student and a dedicated experimenter. Her voice tells us where she's come from and intimates where she would like to go. Even the most amiable of the music she made with Chairlift — the group in which she spent a decade as a vocalist and co-producer until their recent disbandment — involved a manipulation of styles. Polachek's mannered curiosity has surfaced in her lyrical mind as much as her musicianship. Performing as her alter-ego Ramona Lisa on the 2014 solo project Arcadia, Polachek achieved difficult, electronic poetry: "Oh, if love is a dependency, resign me," she sang on "Wings of the Parapets."

Now, there is no singing. There are no words. Language has no place. On Drawing the Target Around the Arrow, Polachek's newly released solo album, the artist has foregone her voice and her speech, at least for a time. Premiering as a free release via the interview-based publication The Creative Independent, Drawing the Target challenges the listener to confront sensation instead of information. Listening to the 18-track album herself, Polachek wrote of discovering a "functionality": "I'd always approached music as being a narrative or being aesthetic or having meaning by way of reference or being political, and I'd never looked at it as cleanly as, 'This is useful.'"

Drawing the Target tailors its usefulness to our restless interiorities. It meets you where you are and then melds into the environment. The song titles are the sole conduits of articulable reference, often pointing toward nature and the human invasions it must host. These short literary phrases, sometimes just one word, build a series of images: "Sleeping Fish" pictures you seated by a lake. "Missed Exit" catches you drifting on a highway. Or maybe these aren't your pictures. There's no demand for prescription, no genre restriction or determinism. Polachek's own reference for the title comes from a Lithuanian Jewish fable, one she interpreted to describe the thoughtless state of "honoring impulse."

The album isn't easy to consume, logistically. Listening requires silence and space, since certain tones can get lost in the hum of daily commutes or office life. I could only listen to it in bed. The attention it asked of me was little, but I still struggled to give the sounds part of myself, in the way that I find it difficult to practice meditation or prayerfulness. Its stillness is intimidating, and its delicacy is persistent. When I was able to listen to the album the whole way through, able to go an hour without hearing any words, I felt I'd conquered an inherent flaw. It was the first waking hour I'd spent since the inauguration not consuming information.

An interplay of phasing, pulses, pure tones, and generous silence give Drawing the Target a sense of sustained suddenness. Clearly labored-over, the sounds still sound instantaneous, a product of impulse. There are tracks that don't announce they've arrived for the better part of a minute, until a warm synth materializes. The effect is, at first, impatience, then embarrassment, then bashfulness and fear that it was so hard to wait 30 seconds for a sound to prepare itself. Some tracks, when they do enter the atmosphere, seem to have a geometric composition, following polished rules of note repetition, like "Singalong," "Lillian's Pavilion," and "Doves." These are the more conventionally "musical" of the series. Others are darkened and asymmetric, searching for a reaction different from pleasure or relaxation, like "Vertical Sunset." Drawing the Target is unrelenting in its pursuit of concept. "Black Background" is a contraction and expansion of a single wave that never hovers over resolution. "Water" is its name, a slow sway of a tone that sounds, if you can imagine it, like the soundtrack to a movie about an apocalyptic beach. The album balances the inorganic nature of its instruments with distant invocations of plasma, of water, of blood.

Ambient music has long had an unresolved relationship with the idea of purpose. Is Brian Eno's search for spaciousness the ultimate interpretation? Is the ambient just furniture? And if it is, do the qualities of background materials necessarily discourage meaning?

In Polachek's own words, Drawing the Target is an "agendaless" endeavor — a word that may suggest an answer to these conceptual questions. Eventually, this album will figure into the virtuosic march of her career, retroactively showing us what exactly she was feeling during this intermission. Today, there is another frame of reference. It feels that Polachek might have been having premonitions. There is a massive national mood that colors, in its awful, despondent shade, the way we listen to things right now. Ordinary people are noticing that language is collapsing. We are questioning its usefulness while having nothing but the tool itself to do so. Any opportunity to escape language in favor of tones is one we should take.