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Caroline Polachek
Desire, I Want To Turn Into You Noah Ciubotaru , February 14th, 2023 09:22

Inspired by powerhouse vocalists and electropop of the '90s and early aughts, Caroline Polachek's new head-spinning, life-affirming album creates a space for total abandon, finds Noah Ciubotaru

On 'Billions', the second single and final track of Caroline Polachek's new album, Desire, I Want To Turn Into You, she sings of "sexting sonnets," of "working the angles," of a man who "lies like a sailor" but "loves like a painter." Her phrases heave through a cycle of breathy registers, then crash into a wail of the song's title. Those repetitions, moored by no predictable structure, are hypnotic, intoxicating, and the lyrics heighten the sense of time being distended. Sending sonnets to lovers is a dated pastime, sexting perhaps one of our generation's most cherished modes of communication. "Working the angles" plays off that latter image, but the mention of a painter casts that line in a different light. Polachek revels in these juxtapositions, collapsing epochs so her music assumes a scale as unfathomable as billions.

Her pursuit of that heady experience led to 'Bunny Is A Rider', the free-associative, anti-surveillance anthem that launched Polachek's current era and served as Desire's lead single. With its inscrutable lyrics, 'Bunny Is A Rider' marked a departure from the more diaristic style of songwriting on her 2019 album Pang as well as a rejection of contemporary pop music's bend towards literalism. "Can you cut that check? / Crush that wreck / Run out on empty on 'em?" Polachek sputters, sounding like an AI that absorbed human lingo and then started to malfunction. Released at the peak of summer 2021, this song, disjointed from everyday meaning, resonated with the brain-mushed abandon of post-vaccine existence. Even as Polachek doles out abstractions and declares herself to be "so nonphysical" in the chorus, 'Bunny Is A Rider' provides an embodied thrill, pulsing with a thick, throat-quaking bassline, punctuated by record scratches, bird chirps, and cheerful whistles. It's a triumph of Polachek and her chief collaborator Danny L. Harle's meticulous sound design.

Polachek's work reflects her studied grasp of the paradox that pop music can ground people in this world by bringing them to another one. As Pang opened with 'The Gate' – which was given fantastical, gothic form in album art and as the backdrop to Polachek's live performances – Desire establishes setting with its first track, 'Welcome To My Island'. This place promises bliss, but off the bat, there's something unnerving about it; listeners are greeted by Polachek letting out howls that grow increasingly piercing as they strain past the 20-second mark. "Hope you like me / You ain't leaving," she taunts. But as the song builds, it seizes the euphoria it so maniacally chases, summoning the rush of '90s electro with a Daft Punk-toned vocoder echoing the verses and a thumping, powerhouse hook that erupts like Cher's 'Believe'.

The grandeur of '90s and early-aughts pop underlies much of this album's ambition. On 'Pretty In Possible', the pairing of Polachek's nimble yodels with a shuffling beat calls to mind Imogen Heap and Guy Sigsworth's Frou Frou project; the drum and bass production on 'I Believe' could be lifted from an Everything But The Girl record, if not for the synth flashes that lace it with more sprightly energy; and 'Fly To You' features Dido (as well as Grimes), whose tight control of her vocals resembles the way Polachek flips between octaves. But for all these connections, Desire avoids feeling derivative by crossing so many wires, drawing from a more adventurous time in pop and placing innately familiar elements in new contexts.

A harbinger of Desire's direction was Polachek's cover of The Corrs' 2000 hit 'Breathless', which she released with a batch of Pang remixes a year after the album came out. "'Breathless' is one of those beautiful songs that retains this magical, nostalgic, pure pop place in people's imaginations," Polachek told Crack in 2021. "Even people who were too young to experience that song when it first came out." This conception of pop as a destination, a perfect form that exists in our collective unconscious, accessible through a perfect song, is captured in Desire's cover art: Polachek crawls toward an inexplicable mound of sand in a subway car, looking up with a gaze fiercely set on something of no interest to the commuters around her. She's out of step, out of time; but with her headphones on, fingers in the sand, she's in touch with something immeasurable.