There’s no doubt about it, 2013 was a year of truly terrible album covers. In amongst the mess you could include the censored substitute artwork that circulated the internet upon the release of Poliça’s sophomore album, Shulamith. It’s terrible precisely because it was undeserving of censure; suppressed to a grid of large, imposing pixels, the original image features a woman, back turned, hair dripping with what could easily be hair dye but is instead deemed to be blood. “Just the man trying to get me down,” quipped Channy Leaneagh, the band’s frontwoman, in an interview.
It’s not too far off the mark to suggest that the woman in the cover, face off-camera, is clearly meant to be censoring herself, so the fact that the artwork fell victim to a secondary censoring would have been a curious set of circumstances for Shulamith Firestone, the late feminist writer of whom the record is named after. With this in mind, ‘Chain My Name’ is a red herring of sorts, opening an album full of unsettling slow jams at a spritely pace. However, it does well to introduce the record’s main lyrical drive: power dynamics, social anxiety and the idea of the self as one’s worst enemy.
From here onwards, Shulamith pares itself down, taking a much more direct approach. ‘Very Cruel’ is a paranoid take on Portishead-tinged trip-hop, while the vocal interplay between Leaneagh and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on ‘Tiff’ is haunting (and if you think the album cover is violent, don’t check out the track’s video). ‘Smug’ may be the band’s finest work yet, a track that takes the smooth sensuality of their 2011 breakout single ‘Lay Your Cards Out,’ and pulls back the haze, revealing a more sinister force at work.
Of the record’s twelve tracks it’s the one most obscured by auto-tune, but Leaneagh’s intonations are at their most visceral here. Even without lyrical clarity, you know exactly what she’s saying, and therein lies the strength of a band like Poliça: they make the most impact when they’re subtly transgressing the boundaries of popular music. Why else would a pop band need two live drummers?
As such, Poliça are truly a band without peers. Sure, one could make a weak case for comparison to Alice Glass’ vocal work in Crystal Castles, but Shulamith proves that the Minneapolis outfit are above the dogmatic ‘auto-tune band’ label that met the arrival of their debut album. However, in the short year between releases, the band appear to have hit their stride, producing a work of equal parts feminist statement and pop purveyance.