If the opening moments of POLIÇA’s latest album, United Crushers (2016), leave you feeling unsettled, then Channy Leaneagh has done her job. With her voice pitch-shifted down into an ominous, nearly unrecognizable register, she sings of a post-industrial urban landscape littered with broken promises, a land of poverty and violence that’s been rigged against us from the start.
Despite all that, though, there is an element of defiance, a refusal to surrender in her delivery of the lyrics. Halfway through that first track, “Summer Please,” when her gorgeous true singing voice enters on top of that deep and disturbing baritone, there is a moment of hope and transcendence, and it’s the key to unlocking United Crushers, POLIÇA’s third full-length release and most remarkable album yet. Even at its darkest, the record is musically the band’s most upbeat and celebratory. It is a weapon meant to empower the weak and the forgotten and the disenfranchised, it’s very creation an act of rebellion in the face of the hopelessness that casts such a long shadow over middle America’s slow urban decline.
“If you look up when you drive around this city, you’ll frequently see the tag ‘United Crushers’ spray painted on the sides of bridges, watertowers or abandoned buildings,” Leaneagh says of Minneapolis, her hometown. “The tag looks down at the city and reminds me of where we really are and what is really happening here. United States of Dreams Be Crushed. ‘Summer Please’ is a plea to summer and, likewise, the future. All winter around here we wait for the first warm day to let the kids out to play. Yet, the beautiful blue sun-soaked sky brings anxiety with it, because the gunshots and killings increase with the heat and nice weather. The future is like that too, isn’t it? You ask a kid what they want to be when they grow up while simultaneously terrified by what evils might be out there waiting for them. Is it safe to let our kids play outside while gunshots fly? Are their dreams going to make it out alive?”
United Crushers was born out of the longest break from touring in POLIÇA’s history. The group originally emerged from Minneapolis in 2011 when Gayngs’ Ryan Olson began collaborating with Leaneagh on a new batch of synthesizer and percussion-heavy arrangements he had lying around. The resulting debut, 2012’s Give You The Ghost, immediately garnered international acclaim, with Rolling Stone hailing it as “the sound of heartbreak and celebration happening simultaneously” and Q praising it as “a bewitching, urgent, magical debut.” The quick success of Give You The Ghost brought with it a heavy touring schedule and an itch to keep creating.
Taking just a few months off from the road, the band ventured into the studio and came out with their follow-up, Shulamith, in the fall of 2013. EW called that album “propulsive enough for dance floors, and dreamy enough for headphones” and MOJO said it “proves that intelligent pop music still has the ability to seduce and enthrall.” Bolstered by a live lineup of dual drummers, bass and Leaneagh’s powerful voice, the band conquered massive festivals around the world from Coachella to Glastonbury in addition to performing on Late With Jimmy Fallon and Later With Jools Holland.
Following the whirlwind of it all, they returned home to Minneapolis for a much-needed break, to live life off the road and build up inspiration for the next go-around. Part of this for Leaneagh was deciding to have a second child. “A woman gains amazing powers and new kinds of freedoms when she’s pregnant and becomes a mother,” says Leaneagh. “I think pregnancy is mystical and I’m grateful to be able to do it. But with any great gift there are great sacrifices, and in the beginning stages of the giving over of my body to the cause of birth, I was worried about what it would do to my relationships; my daughter, my man, my work, myself. I needed a song to vent about it.”
All those worries led to the writing of “Someway,” a catchy bundle of nervous synthesizers and racing heartbeat percussion. But for the most part, pregnancy prompts Leaneagh to look outwards rather than in as she grapples with the gravity of the world her children are set to inherit. “When you’re pregnant, you’re at your most vulnerable and protective,” explains Leaneagh. The terror of “Summer Please” is filtered through the eyes of mothers warning their children as they head out into the violent streets, while “Wedding” was written in reaction to the intertwined epidemics of police brutality and institutional racism, and “Melting Block” starts its story off with an ‘everyone’s-a-sheep-in-wolf’s-clothing’-type mantra and evolves into a giant middle finger pointed at the societal effects of commercialism.
As political as the statements on the record are, United Crushers is also a deeply personal album. Leaneagh reminds herself to stand firm in the face of self-doubt and manipulation on “Lime Habit,” overcomes music industry machinations with triumphant horns on “Baby Sucks,” and recognizes important truths of independence on “Lose You.” Stringing the songs together is a thematic thread of isolation: the fear of being alone, the instinct to hide our true selves for protection, the way in which lovers can each retreat inwards.
Throughout it all, though, there always remains a sense of defiance and celebration in the music to counter those apprehensions and anxieties. Leaneagh suspects it may have its roots in her early days as a folk singer. “When you sing old folk songs about sad things, it does something to your heart that actually uplifts it,” she says. “I believe that about these songs, too.”
There is a darkness to United Crushers, but it doesn’t win. Dreams may be dashed and promises may be broken, the world may be full of disappointment and pain and violence, but if you’re in the midst of it all feeling lost and hopeless on the streets of Minneapolis, there’s a United Crushers tag that knows how you feel. All you have to do is look up.