Like a painter: Caroline Polachek soars on Desire, I Want to Turn into You
Caroline Polachek doesn’t care much for industry convention. This is made abundantly clear by the rollout to Desire, I Want to Turn into You (her seventh studio album, yet only the second under her own name). The album’s first single ‘Bunny is a Rider’ is eerily prophetic with her exclamations of “I’m so non-physical” – despite an 18-month gap between ‘Bunny’ and the full album, CD and vinyl editions of Desire won’t be available until two whole months after its digital release. And while Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled album almost single handedly shifted the standard album release date to Friday (an album which, ironically, Polachek has a writing credit for), she has ignored this by setting Desire’s release to Valentine’s Day — this year, a Tuesday.
Her siren-esque articulations make it impossible not to be drawn in
In what others might consider an act of self-sabotage, by neglecting the prospect of a full tracking week as well as all-so-vital physical sales, Polachek has made no desire to top the charts with this album. Clearly, it’s something the former Chairlift frontwoman would happily sacrifice in return for maintaining creative control. And it’s her meticulous eye for detail, done her way, which makes the ambitious follow-up to 2019’s Pang so fascinating. While Pang is an album centred around intense emotional reaction, Desire looks forward, continuing her quest to deconstruct the essence of pop music, exploring the idea of potential through the range of human experience.
One of the reasons behind the delay in Desire’s physical release was Polachek’s constant refinements and tweaks, a process that continued until barely a week prior to album release. One such case is ‘Fly to You’. While a leaked tracklist suggested PinkPantheress would feature on the track alongside Grimes, this was not to be, and the former was replaced with Dido. She had been brought on board a few weeks before Desire was set upon the world. This proved to be a wise decision — Polachek brings together the track’s three voices in a progression that perfectly captures a sense of carefree beauty.
This isn’t the only time she ties elements of the album together through small details
Her classically refined voice, often described as ‘organic autotune’, remains Polachek’s most unique feature as an artist. Whether it’s the flamenco-inspired verses of ‘Sunset’ or the raucous wails that mark ‘Welcome to my Island’, her vocal delivery is flexible but always exacting. Bringing together elements of alt-pop, electronica, folk rock and more, her siren-esque articulations make it impossible not to be drawn in.
Creating much of the album together, Polachek’s working relationship with producer Danny L Harle reaches another level of understanding. Harle helps put together immaculately enticing atmospheres for Polachek’s creations, from the unsettling metronomes on ‘Crude Drawing of an Angel’, to the smoke alarm in the closing seconds of ‘Hopedrunk Everasking.’ “It’s just smoke”, she cries a few minutes later on a subsequent track, appropriately titled ‘Smoke’, as the soundscape takes on the airiness of volcanic ash. This isn’t the only time she ties elements of the album together through small details, but it’s undoubtedly one that would be appreciated by a keen listener.
The bagpipe-laden ‘Blood and Butter’ showcases Polachek at her unique best, as her voice effortlessly glides over Harle’s production. This is combined with surreal lyricism, singing about getting closer than her lover’s “new tattoo”, while also probably being the first artist to rhyme the words ‘mythicalogical’ and ‘wikipediated.’ It’s less than straightforward, but that helps generate such a strong atmosphere that this only adds to the track.
The infectious earworm ‘Bunny is a Rider’ is another welcome sight. Pitchfork’s 2021 ‘Song of the Year’, any concerns about a temporal disconnect from the remainder of the album quickly evaporate – the track truly feels at home here. A summery anthem of unavailability, ‘Bunny’ — both as a song and as an entity — is an enigma which blends together Timbaland-style beats with just enough of her unique artistic vision to take the listener on a journey through the looking-glass of Polachek’s mind. “Tryna catch that rabbit”, she says — an Alice in Wonderland reference which follows on from ‘Amanaemonesia’, a track she released in 2011 with Chairlift).
Pang was a wonderfully transformative experience that put Polachek on the map as a solo artist. And like the best of sequels, Desire, I Want To Turn Into You takes these ideas, subverting them while expanding at the same time. Polachek may sometimes be fighting an uphill battle — at the age of 37, the music industry can be infamously hostile to artists in her position. But that’s only one side of it. Having been in the crowd to see Polachek perform the album to a sold-out London crowd on Valentine’s Day, it is encouraging to see that she is beginning to get the recognition she so deserves.
“Welcome to my island/ Hope you like me, you ain’t leaving”, she proclaims on the album’s opener. In this moment, she channels the Odyssean nymph, Calypso. But although the epic’s outcome is the departure of the titular hero, visitors are certain to remain on the shores of this Ogygia.
Recommended listening: ‘Blood and Butter’