With their previous albums, Poliça proved they're on a first-name basis with emotional trauma. Give You the Ghost chronicled a life-changing breakup, while the political angst of the late 2010s seeped into every cranny of Music for the Long Emergency. Just weeks after that album's release, Channy Leaneagh fell off her roof while clearing ice dams off of it, breaking her L1 vertebrae and damaging her spine. The physical as well as emotional pain she dealt with as she recovered gives When We Stay Alive its backbone, refocusing the band's music and songwriting. Much like Charlotte Gainsbourg's IRM, another album that eloquently and sometimes harrowingly traced recovery with shape-shifting pop songs, When We Stay Alive captures every nuance of Leaneagh's journey with unflinching honesty. There's much more to the healing process than gratitude for being alive, and the frustration simmering in "TATA" and "Little Threads" and the claustrophobic isolation within "Fold Up"'s trip-hop reflect that.
Poliça's trademark blend of electro-acoustic arrangements and Leaneagh's processed vocals is especially evocative on "Driving," which conjures the frosty darkness of a Minneapolis winter, and on "Feel Like," where wavy synths suggest warmth flowing back into the body and the beat slowly reaches a steady pulse. Sometimes, however, the band's approach on When We Stay Alive is too impressionistic for its own good. When Leaneagh confronts her shame and pain on "Be Again" by naming and reclaiming each part of her body, the effects coating her voice distance listeners from this climactic moment. Later, Poliça adopts a more grounded sound that makes for some of the album's strongest songs. Leaneagh comes to the fore on "Forget Me Now" and "Steady," where her vocals and acoustic guitar ring out triumphantly, harking back to her previous band Roma Di Luna while adding new dimensions to Poliça's music. Fascinatingly, Leaneagh wrote these songs before her injury, as if she could tell she'd soon need this kind of fortitude. By the time When We Stay Alive closes with the casting off of "Sea Without Blue," she and the rest of Poliça sound ready for a fresh start.