Album Review: Caroline Polachek – Desire, I Want To Turn Into You

[Perpetual Novice; 2023]

Whether being the frontwoman for indie pop band Chairlift or weaving her ambient soundscapes as Ramona Lisa and CEP, Caroline Polachek has adopted many guises in her rather impressive mythos. It is, however, when Caroline started releasing music under her own name that something truly otherworldly awakened in a pop landscape parched of mysticism and, frankly, weirdness. Her excellent debut under her name (2019’s Pang) wove a tapestry of an otherworldly landscape built upon electronica, folk and melodically-driven pop. Yet, the biggest irony of Caroline is that, for all her uniqueness, she doesn’t necessarily take herself that seriously; she lets humour drive her narratives as much as earnestness. She simultaneously feels like she floats above our mundane universe and also keeps herself planted firmly on the ground – content in whatever dimension she decides to travel to.

Her sophomore album, titled with unapologetic grandeur Desire, I Want To Turn Into You, significantly expands her Polachekian universe of wonderment. If Pang was a planet, Desire proves a solar system whose tracks transport the listener through its multiple portals and temperaments without discrimination. One moment, we are in a euphoric and campy 80s pop explosion and the next, we are slinking catlike through the alleyways of bouncy bass riffs. The album diverts, suddenly, from different sound to different sound – each track easily its own glorious sphere in a glittering sky strewn with stars. Yet Caroline still manages to be the central deity they orbit around in her liberating quest to connect herself to love and to grasp her existence in all its fascinating facets.

The appropriate entrance to this buffet of pop confections is “Welcome to My Island”. Opening with joyous vocalisations that eventually turn more and more intense – borderline-orgasmic – the track unfurls into glittering synths, epic guitar and an overall sheen of euphoria. “Welcome to my island,” intones Caroline monotonously. “Hope you like me / You ain’t leaving.” It could sound ominous if it wasn’t supremely inviting, and as it explodes into a booming, anthemic chorus of her exclaiming “Desire! / I want to turn into you!”, it seems a wholesome push to run towards happiness, self-aware cheesiness notwithstanding.

Caroline then diverts us into a brief revival of soothing trip-hop on “Pretty In Possible”, which begins with some warm “da da da”s before dynamic drums and mellow guitar chords enter the production. On the track, she spins a touching narrative to an individual crippled by uncertainty; about drawing strength from the instability of life, that it is just as valid to aspire to better things even though darkness remains prevalent; “Now you got one eye on the lane / And one eye on the lava / Spinning out, yeah, I respect that / But I was born to get you home.” The song eventually adds elements of ambient synths and strings to create a heavenly, cinematic feel.

In similar fashion to “Pretty In Possible”, the influence of past movements of pop proves very domineering within this project. For example, “I Believe” is reminiscent of early-2000s dance-pop with its glittery production, garage beat and unyielding sentiments about love conquering all. Its simultaneously emotional and kitschy as she sings “I don’t know but I believe / We’ll get another day together,” over descending synth stabs. It reinvokes the warmth and idealism that was seemingly phased out of pop music but that Caroline weaves throughout her music with a knowing wink. This track segues wonderfully into the ethereal “Fly To You” – an unexpected collaboration with Grimes and – even, more unexpectedly – Dido. Both artists have their own verse and Grimes’ sweet alien tone alongside Dido’s earthy, breathy voice seamlessly join the Polachekian world as if they are a trio of sky sirens luring the listener to the beauty of the stars rather than the depths of the ocean. With fast-paced drums, vocal samples, synths and prominent guitar chords, the song glides soothingly across its lush soundscape, relaxing and endearing.

Similarly, the soothing folktronica of “Blood and Butter” revels in its devotion. From the title, you might think it is some sort of grotesque foray into cannibalistic decadence, but it ends up being dreamy and unabashedly lovestruck as she sings about wanting to get “closer than your new tattoo.” It is about connection in its most visceral form; a hyperawareness that what tugs the heartstrings is unexplainable but feels so good.

Desire has some undoubtedly campy and fun moments that still manage to retain her fantastical inclinations. The first single from this album, “Bunny Is A Rider”, is a bouncy, R&B-ish ode about refusing to be discerned and pinned down; “Bunny is a rider / Satellite can’t find her / No sympathy.” In a meta sense, this seems most applicable to Caroline, who could be coyly giving a nod at her musical unpredictability as much as she is talking about literal liberation.

The flamenco-influenced romanticism of “Sunset” is perhaps the album’s most accessible offering. The layered guitars, hand claps and Caroline’s melodic sensibilities easily soundtrack the moment of finding true love in the midst of personal turmoil. “But boy your patience is a magic kind of medicine / Cause every spiral brings me back into your arms again,” she admits. She also flexes her operatic range with goosebump-inducing vocalisations during the song’s bridge. Thunderous late album highlight “Smoke” is about revelation and destroying your walls, admitting “it’s just smoke” that is obscuring the real you. The singer unearths the wonder of finding someone who prevents you from putting on a façade and it sounds utterly triumphant and joyous.

As multi-faceted and positive as this album is, Caroline doesn’t shy away from darker sounds, as on “Crude Drawing of an Angel”. Hollowly sepulchral with synth samples that breathe rapidly across this track, she sings about the need to encapsulate the object of her fixation. Yes, there is a metaphor of art (“Draw your brow with shaky hand /So that after you’re gone / I got something to hold onto”), yet there is also an eroticism with her voice, interjecting statically through the track terms like “Camera one / Camera two” and “On your side, on the carpet.”

The apex of this pop masterpiece is the epic and astounding finale “Billions”, which is Caroline at her most maximalist; it’s her most unapologetic embrace of, quite literally, everything. With glitchy beats, twinkling synths and her vocals at their most resonant, the singer embodies a feminine deity surveying a universe that is both confusing and tantalising.  “Psycho, priceless, good in a crisis / Working the angles / Oh woah / Billions,” she sings in ecstasy. The track shifts and swells, pares back and then expands, with Caroline in the midst of this sonic kaleidoscopic, tugging the strings with rapture. The track’s lyrics are certainly opaque but the feeling is glorious. It seems that Caroline is trying to encapsulate how love opens the world around you to an almost overwhelming degree; “Twisted, manic / Cornucopiaec / Yeah my cup overfloweth,” she sings in a raspy deep tone as if exhausted by the realms of possibility that lie before her. When a choir joins in – of course, as no track this loaded with many layers and complexities could not not have a choir – to repeat the refrain of “I’ve never felt so close to you”, the listener is left with a feeling of untarnished hope and warmth.

Such is the power of Caroline Polachek who has created a masterwork with Desire. The romance is unfettered, the skies are limitless and the potential that love unlocks is certainly the same. She is a pop auteur, someone who is entirely authentic even if she seems transcendent, creating these idiosyncratic worlds that have this underlying thread of hope and humanity… and all while being delicious earworms too. Albums like this are rare and special, highlighting pop’s capacity to sculpt our emotions and steer us towards something better beyond the horizon.