Caroline Polachek
Photo: Nedda Afsari via biz3

Caroline Polachek Ascends to Greatness on ‘Desire, I Want to Turn Into You’

Caroline Polachek dives into the contradictory crux of the human experience on Desire, I Want to Turn Into You, an album of breathtakingly original pop songs.

Desire, I Want to Turn Into You
Caroline Polachek
Sony / The Orchard
14 February 2023

A paradox runs underneath the prospect that pop is best when it’s carefully planned out note by note like its makers were huddled around an architect’s blueprint with hard hats on. They’ve dedicated an overwhelming share of that work to the reptilian force of desire: that which bypasses logic and often upends civility, a universal phenomenon that’s also direly personal to each individual experiencing it. It’s led people to desperate circumstances that, in some cases cut, caused them to cut their lives short. It’s also not “love”, and we confuse the two far too easily, but we still find it worth celebrating for its ability to illuminate our brief time on the planet. The paradox, then, is that we declare such a celebration of the elemental to be best represented in works that leash that chaos like an animal trainer, presenting it to us in lucid, orderly terms.

Desire, I Want to Turn Into You is one of these future classics. On it, Caroline Polachek feels destined to be connected to the auteurs that once captured that paradox. As a solo artist, Polachek has dedicated her art to all feelings unnameable, their extremes and dissonances integrated into her indelible melodies. At the music’s core remains her voice, a fascinating tool she employs the way Björk used strings on Homogenic, hitting that intoxicating cross between digital aesthetic and analog ethos. Pang (2020) successfully introduced us to this tactic, but on Desire, it reaches an apotheosis. Engaging at every turn and carefully calibrated to its point of view, it represents art pop hitting yet another dizzy apex.

She knows this too, having released nearly half of its tracks as singles over the last year. Each one is a diorama of its own, from the bipolar, scrunchy-laden manifesto of “Welcome to My Island” to the dembow-based “Bunny Is a Rider” to the flamenco flutter of “Sunset”. The real flex is that the deeper cuts are just as resonant. There’s “Fly to You”, a breakbeat sugar high that makes Grimes and Dido sound like part of the same universe. “Pretty in Possible” poignantly cruises on a bruised synth line and a vocal that flitters like a fly with a crumpled wing. “Smoke”, meanwhile, sees Polachek achieving the diva moment of her dreams, dramatically crashing into the verse as lava erupting from a volcano.

For over a decade, Polachek has demonstrated a deep understanding of pop composition and a deft hand at executing it, but on Desire, she strips her songs of any discernible chaff. She knows that “Blood and Butter” doesn’t need a third chorus but “Welcome to My Island” does. A slower, more melancholy number like “Crude Drawing of an Angel” pays off patience with a cathartic expansion at its end. Even on a minimal track like “Bunny Is a Rider”, she adds just enough ornamentation across its runtime to keep it fully engaging. For those who value a smartly-crafted pop song, Desire is absolutely stacked with them, top to bottom.

Though a few sonic sinews connect these tracks — not the least of which is a certain 2000s-era mentality around unabashedly-digital pop — there’s a post-Internet placelessness to the album. Yet, Polachek sutures its disparate styles together in the unique power of her voice. It’s as virtuosic as we’ve come to expect, but it finds even more hues here, from the fried low-end it hits on “Billions” and “Blood and Butter” to the rounded midrange that carries “Bunny Is a Rider”. Throughout, her vocal melodies recall the arpeggiated steps on a MIDI track, and it continues to be impressive when she hits each note on its head, like an archer splitting arrows. Her lyrics and phrases are just as precise, making meals out of malapropisms and laying down metaphors that stick in the brain.

Polachek and co-producer Danny L. Harle constantly color her melodies with atypical sounds and instruments that don’t make sense on paper until you hear them. A set of bagpipes announces a waterfall of vocal harmonies in the outro to “Blood and Butter”, while the chirp of a low-battery smoke detector punctuates “Hopedrunk Everasking’s” fragile narrative about wanting want. But Polachek and Earle aren’t just being pretentious or weird for weirdness’ sake; they’re brilliantly adding dimension to songs about harboring clashing logics and conflicting emotions inside yourself. Nothing illustrates this better than “Billions”, the record’s cosmic closer, which weaves Indian tabla and backmasking into its rumination on the contradictions embedded in human existence. The song fades on the children of Trinity Choir singing the record’s last line, “I’ve never felt so close to you”, a reminder that our capacity to contradict ourselves is the messy truth that connects us all.

It’s high-minded stuff, but Polachek never once gives up accessibility for an intellectual edge. Despite its depth, Desire is as much pop as it is art, and perhaps even more so. That accessibility partly comes from the familiarity of its references, like how “I Believe” summons the sleekness of acts like Everything But the Girl and Ray of Light or all the John Hughes movies that might have featured “Welcome to My Island”. Of course, the other side of that coin is that Polachek is simply an exceptional songwriter. Desire, I Want to Turn Into You, in its kaleidoscopic environment of pop hallmarks and idiosyncrasies, is her at her escapist best. In time, it may yet carve her out a niche within a litany of pop legends that once battled with the stormy crux of the human experience and came out victorious.

RATING 10 / 10