Caroline Polachek‘s new album is like an egg. The exterior is brittle, full of light timbres, unique blemishes, always carrying the possibility of smashing open into a dozen fragmented pieces. But when the egg cracks comes the thick yolk: tenderness, earthy flourishes, warm tones, and, of course, deeper pleasures.
Her previous album, 2019’s Pang, found the alt-pop songwriter embracing a futuristic, icy persona, with sharp imagery and some irresistible hooks (lead single “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” remains Polachek’s standout work and one of her most precise exercises in pop craftsmanship). But the egg hadn’t quite broken open yet — though the work as a whole is an excellent introduction to Polachek’s unique musical language, there was a coldness in her stylistic approach that made these songs feel strangely impersonal, like they weren’t meant to be offered in this universe.
Now, for her fourth solo album and her second under her given name, Desire, I Want To Turn Into You (out Tuesday, February 14th), Polachek is determined to crack the egg and ground these songs on planet Earth. After all, within her pinpoint vocals, innovative production, and acutely surreal lyrics, is the enjoyable detail that she is, in fact, a human being, teeming with desire. Though she’s brought back Pang collaborator Danny L Harle to produce, she’s mostly ditched the hyperpop-adjacent sheen that characterized Pang songs “Hit Me Where It Hurts” and “Ocean of Tears” for warmer, more naturalistic fare, complete with more organic instrumentation than she’s ever incorporated.
All of these new choices are in service of Polachek’s grand theme: desire. It’s one thing to write about wanting sex or participating in the physical act itself, but Polachek digs significantly deeper, likening her body and psyche to an island and setting out to mine the most impactful features from it. She’s not simply “with” her partner; she’s getting “closer than your new tattoo” like on “Blood and Butter.”
She writes incredibly sensual songs using lyrics that are actively not sexy; on “Bunny is a Rider,” Polachek switches between the third and first person to announce, “I’m so nonphysical,” before asking “Can you cut that check?/ Crush that wreck?/ Run out empty on ’em?” She may not be singing explicitly about her partner’s sex appeal, but the way she hits her consonants — which end up being more important than the literal words she’s singing — is dripping with sex.
Indeed, Polachek’s vocal deliveries are crucial to Desire, I Want To Turn Into You. Her rapid-fire descending arpeggios on the latin-influenced “Sunset” are busy and loaded, mirroring the energetic exchange of physical intimacy in a new relationship. Her soaring, ethereal highs on “Crude Drawing of an Angel,” which contains an opening motif that feels indebted to the Twin Peaks soundtrack, are euphoric and breathtaking representations of sensual bliss. The precision with which Polachek can transition from her chest voice to head voice is absurd, as exemplified beautifully in the album’s closer, “Billions.” It’s in her own vocal and musical versatility that Polachek can create a new map to discover, and the results are nothing short of thrilling.
Whereas Pang seemed to encompass a world shrouded in Polachek’s specific vision of darkness, Desire lets the light in. There is a consuming warmth that she imbues into the album, beginning with the sun-soaked electric guitar that almost immediately appears in opener “Welcome To My Island.” There are truly serene moments where the introduction of an acoustic guitar completely shifts the song to something earthier and more grounded, like on “Blood and Butter” and the stunning back-half cut “Butterfly Net.” There’s always the capacity for her songs to cave in on themselves or descend into carnage, but on Desire, Polachek actively chooses beauty over more challenging sounds and arrangements.
That’s not to say every song on the album takes an easier route. “Fly To You,” which features the unlikely combination of both Grimes and Dido, combines a skittering 2-step drum beat with a stuffed verse from Grimes and a slower, majestic chorus from Polachek — all before yet another warm acoustic guitar pops up, deliberately placed louder in the mix than everything else. The percussive rhythm that drives the song seems to fall away into the background, and the trio’s soft vocals feel weightless above the bustling activity.
The 2-step drum beats on “Fly To You” are also included on the club-ready “I Believe,” and both “Pretty In Possible” and “Smoke” possess nostalgic trip-hop beats that feel lifted straight from the late ’90s. These rhythm experiments, as well as recruiting early oughts singer-songwriter Dido for a feature, also fall into a major stylistic theme of Desire — there’s a much deeper focus on the sounds and lavender-laced energy of ’90s and early-2000s alternative pop. Pang felt like Polachek’s futuristic thesis, and now, she’s turning the dial backwards and paying homage to artists like Dido, Enya, and perhaps most significantly, Björk.
But comparisons aside, Polachek — who reminded her fans last month that she is not “this generation’s Kate Bush… I, meanwhile, am this generation’s Caroline Polachek” — is carving out acres of space to show you how enigmatic of an artist she can be. This is best illuminated on “Butterfly Net,” where Polachek aches “There you were with your mirror/ Shining the world all over me/ There I was with my butterfly net/ Trying to catch your light.” The slow-burning chorus gives way to one of the most majestic creations she’s ever composed, and when she arrives once more to the surreal image of her surrounded by the light given off by her lover, she bathes in a feeling so enchanting and vivid that we, too, are drawn into the glory.
There are moments like this scattered all throughout Desire, I Want To Turn Into You. She deftly captures when a connection to someone is so profoundly strong that we are transported out of our bodies into the warm, dreamy glow of desire and being seen. The charged sonics and left-of-center production choices from her previous works are still in the mix, but there’s a more considerate effort to dominate that uncertainty with bliss.
Even in the album’s darker hues, there’s the sense that night only exists to bring us to the sunlight; these transformative tracks represent the sun beginning to rise after a long period of darkness, and Caroline Polachek is soaring into morning. There’s a reason she chose Valentine’s Day as Desire‘s release date — what better way to bask in the connection you have with a partner than a deep dive into the language and imagery of desire?
Polachek begins the album with the greeting, “Welcome To My Island.” If this is what her island is, it’s difficult to imagine anyone wanting to leave.
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Essential Tracks: “Blood and Butter,” “Butterfly Net,” “Bunny Is A Rider”
Desire, I Want To Turn Into You Artwork: