Why Jennifer Castle’s ‘Pink City’ should win the Polaris Prize

Photo by Jeremy Jensen
Photo by Jeremy Jensen

by Michael Thomas

One of the best things ever said about Jennifer Castle came from none other than Owen Pallett, one of her collaborators for Pink City. At the second of Pallett’s two shows in Toronto, Castle served as his opening act. During his own set, he said to Castle: “I write a bunch of bullshit and you write about real things!” (Emphasis Pallett’s.)

That little remark has stuck with me and comes back into my head every time I read something about Castle or listen to her music. Her realness strikes me in a way few other musicians do. Now, to call music “authentic” is about as meaningless as calling a band “indie.” What I mean by her realness is her freedom from artifice. There’s nothing obscuring Castle’s poignant, sometimes enigmatic lyrics, with the arrangements kept relatively simple. In other words, listening to Pink City is like stepping into a room with Castle, with no buffer.

It’s generally understood that when someone has mastered something, that something seems effortless. The best athletes don’t even have to think about making that pass or scoring that goal; it just happens. Castle at this point is a master of her craft. Her live show is as straight-to-the-point as her recordings—with just a guitar in hand she can enchant a crowd.

Pink City should take the Polaris Prize because it is the only record on the short list that is a true mark of mastery (though arguably, Caribou’s Our Love—which also featured Pallet—comes close). Tinkering with this album even in the minutest detail would completely throw off its delicate balance.

The album’s emotional weight is in metric tons. “Sailing Away” is apparently one of Pallett’s favourite songs and it’s not hard to see why. There’s real pain in Castle’s voice as she sings: “When you don’t need nothing there’s a certain type of game you play/I don’t need a home, don’t need a lover, no friends around me to support each other.” But the refrain that really drives the point comes shortly after: “I learned from the best how to cut the rest and then I’ll take what I get and won’t offer anything.” Just a simple bit of guitar pickings speaks to the emotional nakedness of the song, and it later beautifully brings in Pallett’s strings. The only song on the shortlist in the same league as this song is undoubtedly Braids’ “Miniskirt.”

The theme of isolation isn’t only apparent there; “Nature” seems to be about the slow progress of the Earth with or without humans. And it ends with one of Castle’s most enigmatic lyrics: “I lift my skirt for the economy.”

But where Castle can be mysterious in some parts, in others she’s incredibly human. “Down River” has one of the album’s best moments. First Castle sings “Had to slay a dragon just to clear my throat,” pauses a second or two, and then audibly clears her throat. “Working for the Man” is introduced with simple and beautiful strings as Castle softly pleads for her rescue from her job and boss. “Broken Vase” talks of someone named Jay, who paints flowers.

“Sparta” is a rarity on the album; it’s a full-band number including some flute, and it should strike listeners then and there that Castle can create a song as striking as this one with a fraction of the instrumentation.

But through tales of despair, Pink City looks to perhaps a brighter future with its title track, also its closer. Piano and saxophone back this sombre song with some hopeful lyrics: “I’m finding new romance at last.”

No other shortlist contender can match up to Castle’s simple approach without appearing to try too hard. “Just don’t get me started on all of this rain,” Castle sings on “Pink City,” and at that moment it’s clear that she’s as human as we are.

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