Caroline Polachek Leaps Forward With Bolder Avant-Pop Designs on ‘Desire, I Want to Turn Into You’

Caroline Polachek made her name as frontwoman of indie pop outfit Chairlift, teased different personas under the monikers of Ramona Lisa and CEP, and went on to write songs for the likes of Beyoncé. Her first album under her own name was 2019’s “Pang,” an understated avant-pop record that avoided being both exceptionally avant-garde and especially pop. This was a surprise, considering she worked with producer Danny L. Harle, from whose PC Music background and usual fare one would expect something stranger and sillier — in the best way. It turns out they saved that for the next album, “Desire: I Want to Turn Into You.” 

Polachek’s sophomore album opens to her wailing orgasmically on opening track, “Welcome To My Island.” Opening chords ring out on flanging guitars. We’ve cut to the climax, and this is only the beginning. ‘80s arpeggiated synths play out a theme: “Welcome to my island,” Polachek delivers in monotone, “Hope you like me / You ain’t leavin’.” Note, desire is compulsory. The cover art features Polachek on all fours, with her eyes fixated on her object of desire, crawling in a subway car with sand spread on the floor. Cue the chorus, “Desire, I want to turn into you.” The words are forced out from the same wailing voice of the continued orgasmic outpourings. Next comes a spastic spoken word outburst, like an agitated update on Blondie’s “Rapture.”

One track in, Polachek has embraced kitsch. She’ll have more use for it later. “Pretty In Possible” begins with “da dada da” vocals that retrofit the designs of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner.” Polachek captures the spontaneity of daydreaming by meandering over a breakbeat. The melodic richness on display in her whimsical turns sets a template for other songs. Strings enter midway and escalate, reaching their peak upon the titular refrain. But, what could it mean to be “pretty in possible?” Literally, you would have to admire yourself under imaginary circumstances. In other words, you would desire those circumstances. Now, consider the penultimate track, “Smoke.” The refrain is “It’s just smoke / Floating over the volcano.” At this point, we’re too consumed by desire to admit the obvious truth. The melody of this song’s chorus is a play on the opener’s. Where we heard, “Desire / I want to turn into you,” we now hear, “And you are / The big answer tonight / And you are / Melting everything about me.” 

Lead single, “Bunny Is a Rider,” a celebrated 2021 summer jam, builds around a minimal funk bassline. Twitching drums go haywire, with whistles and a sample of Harle’s baby’s laugh. This nonsensical title has a ring to it, but there’s more. “Bunny is a rider / Satellite can’t find her.” In an age of social media obsession, this song is an independence fantasy, a celebration of the ephemeral and unavailable. Consider that Polachek “is a rider” whom the “satellite can’t find.” She hops from pop to trip-hop, to opera, to pop again, to Timbaland on this track, on to whatever she fancies next, and we struggle to make sense of not only what type of artist she embodies, but what exactly pop is and isn’t. Polachek’s lyrics defy literal interpretation. It can seem like Polachek the singer is not even relatable as a person — but she prides herself on this. In the chorus of “Rider,” she boasts, “I’m so non-physical.” She’s on her way, turning into desire.

The way Polachek rides, she’s bound to turn up in some interesting places. This type of pop scrambling can’t simply mix cherished sounds with some jarring and goofy ones, but must occasionally mix in some uniquely different styles. ‘Desire, I Want to Turn Into You’ splits duties well with its vaguely bright, dancy side and dark, ambient-focused side, then throws in the Flamenco-inspired “Sunset,” which is a complete departure from the rest of the album. Still, it was the third single, and does have a catchy chorus, sung over Spanish guitar. Polachek’s wordless post-chorus hoo-ing, the most bonkers part yet, sounds like birdsong taken too far. 

The emergent vision of “Crude Drawing of an Angel” involves an act of clandestine portraiture, realized in a haunting soundscape. “Hopedrunk Everkasking,” envisions a cryptic connection between love and death in the imagery of tunneling. “Deeper, dig it deeper,” Polachek orders. Her aching voice drones and twitches in an ambient soundscape. “How does it feel to know / Your final form?” This sounds fatalistic, but then she also sings, “Pull close to me and never be alone.” “I Believe” is a dance floor sensation, driven by the vocal power and prowess of Polachek as a fully-realized diva. Harle’s most wide-grinning antics are on display in the stabs that cue the hook. In “I Fly to You,” Grimes, Dido and Polachek fly past one another in an electro-acoustic whirlwind of guitars and jokey flutes. The frenzy of spurring voices drives the tune, but from their momentum comes a full-fledged drum & bass onslaught. If Grimes and Dido make a notable impact, it’s more in their influence than their presence. “Blood and Butter” takes after ‘90s tantric electronic anthems that often had a certain folk essence. Polachek limits parameters to two-chords and piles heaps atop, including a bagpipe solo and myriad voices harmonizing in overlapping melodies.  

In the grand finale, “Billions,” a smattering of tablas makes for the wildest drum onslaught yet. Polachek evokes Kate Bush as she marvels on abundance. Her subject shouldn’t be a surprise in light of this album’s maximalism. The songs nearly all feature intricately glitching drums. Polachek’s vocals are typically repitched, or adjusted by Harle every few lines. The music pulls from synth-pop, breakbeat, R&B, flamenco, trip-hop, ‘90s and ‘00s pop and more. Cross-track references are scattered all over. From the stereo swarm of crackles and pops in the opener to the numerous separate song concepts within “Possible,” and the excesses of the full festival troupe assembled on “Blood & Butter,” it should be all too clear that abundance is a valued quality for Polachek. She sings of “sexting sonnets / Under the tables / Tangled in cables,” then about someone who “lies like a sailor” but “loves like a painter.” She heaves over proliferating kicks and bursts of noise, as we pan out grandly, and adds, “My cup overfloweth” —  desire. Chaotic synth noise breaks out that vaguely echoes the bagpipes in “Blood and Butter.” The tablas reenter, now accompanied by a children’s choir. Children’s voices enter from different ends with overlapping lines, all singing the same refrain, ”I’ve never felt so close to you.” If Caroline Polachek actually turned into desire, she would be a spirit who takes us over whenever we desire something. You’ll likely find yourself seeking, at least, something that lives up to this album — musically or otherwise. And you’ll know where that desire came from. 

Desire, I Want to Turn Into You” releases Feb. 14 on Apple Music.