Caroline Polachek’s new album captivates audience with an island of misfit feelings

March 7, 2023, 3:14 p.m.

“Welcome to My Island,” the opening track of Caroline Polachek’s latest album, “Desire, I Want to Turn Into You,” begins with a twenty-five second primal scream. For the next 45 minutes, we’re in her territory with no chance of escape. 

Like the sirens of Greek mythology who lured legions of sailors to their deaths, Polachek understands the power of harnessing raw emotion to entrap and enrapture. By the time the echolalic repetition of the chorus hits, it’s clear that Polachek doesn’t want us to simply feel her emotion: she wants to become emotion so that we can feel her.  

In our modern “emotive era,” listeners expect pop songs to sound as if they were recorded immediately after a therapy session. Some believe the best songs come when the artist is armed with nothing more than alkaline water and jottings on their Notes app. Considering Polachek’s discography up to this point — which includes heart-wrenching singles such as “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” and “Ocean of Tears” — there’s ample evidence she can craft those emotive tunes. She consistently exceeds expectations with her brash lyrics, synth pop hooks and self-described “hyper-maximalist” production approach.

“Desire, I Want to Turn Into You,” is Polachek’s sophomore album as a solo artist. Prior to her solo releases, she cut her teeth in the indie band Chairlift, whose song “Bruises” was included in a 2008 iPod Nano commercial.

Polachek’s long standing tenure in the music industry is reflected in her ability to move through musical styles with ease. The first three tracks of her current release alone range from new wave to trip hop to her indie roots. The melody in “Pretty in Possible” sounds like a fuzzy interpolation of Suzanne Vega’s 1987 hit “Tom’s Diner.” In the lead single “Bunny is a Rider,” the stream-of-consciousness lyrics, funk bassline and Timbaland-inspired beat are proof of her creative freedom. Polachek’s genre-hopping allows her to flex her versatility and simultaneously defy neat categorization — it’s impossible to place an intangible object into a box.

The album is deeply self-referential, with musical phrases, melodies and lyrics from one song reappearing in others. For example, the body is described  as a source of power in “Blood and Butter” but explored and as a burden to be transcended in “Sunset.” 

Among the different feelings that Polachek embodies is melancholy. In “Crude Drawing of An Angel” and “I Believe” (the latter being a tribute to the musician SOPHIE, who died in 2021), her witful vocals in the verses are punctuated with spoken commands. Polachek understands that emotions as big as longing to control one’s self-image and grief at the loss of a friend require self-soothing, which she expresses in the commands. 

Lest one think these expressions of  emotional vulnerabilities are a lack of confidence, her mastery is on full display in “Fly to You,” a song featuring Grimes and Dido. Only a pop star as secure in her artistry as Polachek would let featured vocalists take both the intro and the outro.

In “Hopedrunk Everasking,” the sound of a chirping smoke alarm can be heard throughout. Listeners should beware: listening to the album with headphones can be disconcerting! One of the strongest tracks, “Blood and Butter,” features Polachek’s auto-tuned vocals complemented by bagpipes during the bridge. In addition to nodding to her Scottish heritage, the unexpected instrumentation reminds us that pop music, no matter how avant garde, should be fun.

As the album comes to a close on “Billions,” Polachek seamlessly blends talk-singing with an impressive, layered vocal performance during the chorus. Here, the body is described as an “upgraded” object, albeit “dead on arrival” at this point. Polacheck doesn’t leave us without a clear statement of her affective state: the Trinity Boys Choir is brought in to tackle the refrain, “I never felt so close to you.” Children are known for being brutally honest. In an album where the lyrics alternatively express bravado and self-effacement, a children’s choir allows Polachek to make a meta comment on making art that captures the complexity of being human. 

Feelings are messy. Ultimately, while the emotional rhythms of “Desire, I Want to Turn Into You” elide formal logic, there is catharsis — both for the listener and Polachek. 

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

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