Caroline Polachek – Desire, I Want To Turn Into You
Last year, Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill went viral after its inclusion on the hit Netflix show Stranger Things, with the public finally giving the pop pioneer her long overdue flowers. The industry largely eschewed Bush in her day, because she dared to play with her food; for her, pop music was not formulaic. It was an opportunity to dream. It’s necessary to consider Bush at the top of this review, because in many ways she is essential to understanding the work that Caroline Polachek has been making, and is able to make. Though many contemporary women in pop have cited her as a cornerstone influence, it’s more Bush’s attitude or audacity they identify with, not so much her approach to pop. Few have really been brave enough to go there in the same way, or perhaps even understand where “there” is. There’s been a few, the likes of Björk or Sinead O’Connor, who join Bush’s lineage of woman pop innovators who lack the formal accolades we believe they deserve. Polachek is the latest entry to this line. The former Chairlift front woman revealed herself to be an unlikely pop genius with the release of her debut solo album, Pang. Wrapped in a sort of 90’s gothic storybook allure that recalled Charmed as much as it did The Dark Crystal, Pang was full of delightfully oddball references that established Polachek as singular in the pop landscape. Through those glimmers of an audacious playfulness on Pang, you can pretty much draw a direct line from Bush’s fantastical, conceptual, and outright weird art-pop to Polachek. It’s a line that’s only made stronger with the release of Polachek’s sophomore album Desire, I Want To Turn Into You.
The lead up to Polachek’s much anticipated second album has been a long one, preceded by a collection of singles that suggested Desire, I Want To Turn Into You may be her most sonically diverse work to date. From the afropop cadence of Bunny Is A Rider to the sun-soaked Spanish guitar of Sunset, Desire, I Want To Turn Into You is sprawling, with Polachek dealing with pop’s favourite subject matter; love. Make no mistake, she writes absolutely killer love songs, in part because she tackles the full range of that singular yet aching complex emotion. Desire, I Want To Turn Into You is a portrait of a person in love, but that statement cannot begin to fathom the intricacies of the experience Polachek draws her inspiration from and so succinctly manages to distil. In fact, the album is much more a portrait of desire itself, and its multitude of faces; not so much the human experiencing it. From the deliciously unhinged trills of her siren song on Welcome To My Island, which opens the album brilliantly, it’s a case study into the aesthetic and sensory sensations that arise from the experience of desire. There’s pleasure in her orgasmic wails on Crude Drawing Of An Angel, then trepidation in Bunny Is Rider’s skittish groove. Pining rears its sorrowful head on Hopedrunk Everasking, and adoration appears on the magical Billions, which perfectly bookends Desire, I Want To Turn Into You as its closing statement.
While there’s no surefire sleeper hit in the vein of her viral So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings, this is an album that flourishes in full form. From the banshee yelps of The Cranberries, to ethereal 90’s alt-pop acts like Jewel, to Aphex Twin, to New Age, Polachek’s encyclopaedic knowledge of pop styles and motifs from two decades ago is as vast as it is impressive. Here, she flips through the entire book in her head to pull from wherever she sees fit. There’s Orbital style deep bass and Burialesque atmospherics contrasted with euphoric harmonies on the sublime Smoke. She enlists the feather-lite coos of Grimes and resurrects Dido on Fly To You, a softcore jungle track accented with acoustic guitar plucks. It’s surprising to realise just how similar Polachek and Dido’s voices are as they play off each other in the magnetic and atmospheric space of the track. Polachek’s choices are you enviably smart, proving she’s as much a scholar of her craft as she is a master. Though many of her peers have attempted to pull off something similar over the past two years (Crash and Hold The Girl come to mind), Polachek has managed to craft a cover to cover impeccable pop record that returns the genre to the its 2000’s era pastiche peak, while staying rooted in the present. The stylistic mixed bag of this album harkens back to pop classics, when the cohesion of a pop album wasn’t so reliant on genre (like, what even was The Cores, one of Polacheck’s palpable influences on this album?) or a singular style, but contained a multitude of possibilities on a single metallic plastic disc.
The glue holding this stylistic hodgepodge together is Polachek herself. It’s in her incredibly intelligent songwriting, which allows her to play with her voice while maintaining a pop accessibility. It’s in her penchant for crafting uniquely bizarre but killer hooks, such as the stuttering “say somethings” on Billions, or the Simple Minds inspired “hey, hey, heys” on Welcome To My Island. All this is underpinned by a sense of vulnerability that is indebted entirely to Polachek’s dexterous and emotionally astute performance. Across this album, Polachek is remarkable. Her oft breathy, wistful delivery commits to the theme of desire in all its forms; at times overwhelming, at others dizzying, sometimes feverishly manic and sweaty. It’s sexy without being sleazy, intimate while remaining coy, and completely off the rails while maintaining a cool and composed demeanour. The experience of allowing Desire, I Want To Turn Into You to seep down through your skin and into your bones (perhaps as you lay naked in an unmade bed), is spectacular. This is an utter triumph, not just for Polachek, but for that lineage of overlooked female visionaries that she descends from.
Listen to Welcome To My Island from Desire, I Want To Turn Into You below.
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