A pop star has to store a number of secret weapons in her utility belt. Lots of people can sing and dance, but what sets a star apart from a mere talent? One weapon of choice is idiosyncrasy — a means to genuine individuality. Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, Billie Eillish — they all have it. Even if you don’t know the specific song, when one of these pop icon’s music comes on, you recognize the singer, from the moment you hear their voice. There’s nothing worse in pop than anonymity. But more than that, a true pop star also has to set the trends. Kate Bush, Madonna, Charli XCX — these artists don’t just have their finger on the pulse of the avant-garde, they create it.
On her new album Desire, I Want to Turn Into You, Caroline Polachek has upgraded her weapons stash — and her knives are sharpened and ready to cut Teaming again with producer Danny L Harle, the forward-thinking PC Music associate with whom she worked on 2019’s Pang, Polachek has created the best album of her career and surely one of 2023’s best. Make no mistake, her arsenal has always been deadly, since her early years fronting Brooklyn indie band Chairlift – consistently pairing her one-of-a-kind voice with left-field songwriting and production. But if Pang was a career reinvention, then Desire is the statement of a pop visionary. True to a great pop record, it feels at once timely and futuristic in its concept and soundscape.
Desire is a tried and true subject matter for a pop record. Yet to Polachek, it’s not enough just to feel desire. She wants to be desired – to inhabit and lose herself in it. This album infects you with a similar urge to get lost in the landscapes that Polachek creates. It’s an impressive feat of immersive world building. If Desire is the island Polachek “welcomes” us to on the first track, each song is a different forest, volcano, or beach locale – each a world of its own to explore. And as your vessel approaches, you hear Polachek before you see her – up on a mountaintop welcoming and warning you with her siren wail. Opener “Welcome to My Island” is anthemic, packed with stadium guitars, pulsing synths, millennial whoops, and Polachek promising that “Nothing’s gonna be the same again.”
Sonically, Desire is held together as a sort of trip hop world tour, while smearing in wide swaths of influences from flamenco to celtic trad. “Pretty in Possible” is a clear nod to Susanne Vega’s classic “Tom’s Diner” in its “da da da” hook and steady backbeat, conjuring elemental emotion with lyrics about lava fields and bloody noses. The subterranean “Crude Drawing of an Angel” is a skittering new age ballad excavated by a fretless bass from an icy cave somewhere alongside Kate Bush’s The Ninth Wave. “I Believe” arrives as the most dancefloor-ready track on the album, with metronomic percs, enormous synth stabs, and soaring vocals. Dedicated to late electronic futurist SOPHIE, the track is something of a soul sister to Janet Jackson’s “Together Again,” dreaming of one day dancing with a lost friend in immortal paradise. “Fly to You” continues the trip hop references, employing Grimes and Dido, each electropop icons of their own eras, and culminating in a satisfying climax of vocal counterpoints.
“Bunny Is a Rider,” a song about seeking freedom through escapism, finds it in a tropical beat and bassline. Bunny is happily lost, whistling her way through Polachek’s island jungle with Timbaland-esque baby sounds playing through her head. “Sunset” transports us from the wilderness into the safe arms of a lover, riding on horseback away from a world on fire and into the Spanish sun. “So many stories we were told about a safety net / But when I look for it, it’s just a hand that’s holding mine.” Written during the pandemic, after losing her father to COVID, Polachek’s Desire is much deeper than a crush or aspiration; it’s a desperate lust for stability and meaning. One of the more traditional sounding songs on a very untraditional album, “Sunset” shares its characteristic guitar and sense of classicism with “Butterfly Net” – a gorgeous, reverb-soaked saga brimming simultaneously with high drama and the restraint of an ancient tragedy
“Blood and Butter” is one of the more structurally complex songs on the album and also might be the best. Its pulsing stereo-panning synths and acoustic guitar anchor the track in late-’90s folktronica experimentation. Its hook provides the album’s catchiest vocal melody, its bagpipes bring a personable WTF effect, and its outro offers the perfect showcase for Polachek’s massive vocal range.
Desire, I Want to Turn Into You ends with “Billions,” a near-perfect closer which offers the incredible one liner, “Psycho, priceless, good in a crisis” – a lyric that summarizes the manic energy of the entire album. We’re treated to a fade out from London’s Trinity children’s choir – singing, ironically, “I never felt so close to you,” as their voices drift further and further into the distance. Are we any closer to our object of desire from when we started? Sonically and lyrically, the fade out entices us to revisit Polachek’s island. And Desire offers great rewards to returning listeners. The whistle from “Bunny Is a Rider” makes a reappearance in the last 30 seconds of “I Believe,” and the bagpipes on “Blood and Butter” mirror the melody Grimes sings on “Fly to You.” Easter eggs like these help glue the album experience together and make it difficult to hit skip on any of its tracks.
Despite its fantastical musings to liberate oneself from human constraints and literally become emotion, Desire, I Want to Turn Into You remains grounded in a keen sense of intellectualism – achieving an embodied balancing act between head and heart. It’s a tripped out but never spaced out odyssey of destinations to which desire can take you when you lead with vulnerability.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 8.