Wait — do you hear that? What’s that sound, emerging over the horizon, dipping and diving and doing curlicues, pirouetting on the clouds? Where could such an impassioned elemental wail possibly be coming from? It’s not a bird, and it certainly isn’t a plane. It’s… it’s Caroline Polachek! And she sounds ecstatic.
As a performer, Polachek holds nothing back. The pop singer-songwriter-producer — formerly of the perpetually underrated avant-pop band Chairlift, currently surfing a wave of critical acclaim and TikTok renown — starts off her new album with one of those opening tracks that absolutely wallops you with sonic ideas and sensations. On “Welcome To My Island,” which begins Desire, I Want To Turn Into You and lends the album its title, Polachek unleashes an arsenal of effervescent, attention-grabbing maneuvers. It’s a fucking rush.
The song kicks off with Polachek’s signature falsetto acrobatics, her voice flailing as if riding a waterslide, overwhelmed and euphoric. The resemblance to an orgasm is intentional. Fluorescent guitar chords come crashing in, then exit the frame to clear out space for the high-pitched percolating synth that drives the track along. “Welcome to my island,” Polachek greets us, adopting a low, staccato, spoken-word cadence. “Hope you like me/ You ain’t leaving.” (If the line strikes you as foreboding, she’s explained that the lyrics are about “the side of vulnerability and openness that’s not always pretty.”) Soon that voice is soaring again, painting indelible neon melodies across the sky as Polachek exclaims, “Desire! I want to turn into you!” More wordless reverie flows into the in-between spaces — so much of it — and by the time the bridge hits, she’s rapping? “Go forget the rules, forget your friends,” Polachek spits, paraphrasing her father’s advice. “Just you and your reflection.”
Only an artist who’s been adhering to that wisdom would attempt a song like “Welcome To My Island.” It’s the kind of audacious track you release when you’re not afraid of being clowned for over-singing or being a white lady who raps, one you can only pull off with a powerhouse voice and an unflinching commitment to your vision. Created with her close collaborator Danny L Harle plus A. G. Cook, Jim-E Stack, and Dan Nigro (yes, the Olivia Rodrigo guy), “Welcome To My Island” is our latest example of Polachek charting her own course. As an indie-adjacent musician whose work gravitated toward mainstream pop in the 2010s, she exemplifies a common trope. But if her music sometimes intersects with trends, it never desperately chases them; you always feel like you’re getting that 100% pure uncut Caroline Polachek. (Some savvy coke rapper can feel free to use that line and immediately be showered with praise by music critics.)
With Chairlift, Polachek cycled through a range of stylish aesthetics, putting a rocker-friendly spin on genres like synthpop, sophisti-pop, R&B, and electronic dance music — or maybe it was a pop-minded take on post-punk, shoegaze, ambient, and anthemic indie — all the while zeroing in on the artful ideal crystallized on her 2019 solo debut. Pang had a real sense of identity, a sonic fingerprint steeped in sparkling, ecumenical ’80s synth-and-guitar hits, drawing from baroque pop and hyperpop in equal measure. Songs like the warm and playful “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” and the winterfresh epic “Ocean Of Tears” were winsome additions to the Polachek songbook. That, plus her extroverted persona and fine-tuned personal aesthetic, established her as a cult-level pop star and put her in a lineage with the likes of Björk and Kate Bush. (Polachek is the kind of person who will tweet with a straight face that she’s “endlessly fucking annoyed” about being called her generation’s Kate Bush — “I, meanwhile, am this generation’s Caroline Polachek” — but she’s also self-aware enough that Pang had a song called “Caroline Shut Up.”)
Desire, I Want To Turn Into You builds on and subtly subverts Pang’s template. Harle, the PC Music affiliate who worked as Polachek’s main collaborator last time around, returns to co-produce 11 of 12 tracks. With rare exceptions, like Ariel Rechtshaid’s assist on the house excursion “I Believe” and Sega Bodega’s work on the clunky-but-catchy flamenco exercise “Sunset,” it’s just Polachek writing songs and bringing them to life with Harle. In cultivating a style she describes as “Tantric” — don’t worry, not because of any resemblance to the “Breakdown” butt-rockers — they aimed for a mix of the organic and electronic. The idea was to mirror Polachek’s lyrical focus on natural forces like volcanos, her way of evoking the tangle of conflicted emotions we tend to repress or oversimplify. Recording sessions in Italy reportedly stirred her connection to antiquity, amplifying the Old World vibes that sometimes echoed through Pang. Polachek’s music does not sound like Renaissance, but sometimes it reminds me of the actual Renaissance.
The electro-organic approach is more obvious in some places than others. “Blood And Butter” incorporates acoustic guitar strums and bagpipes while also kinda resembling Savage Garden’s “I Want You.” The Sade-meets-Pink-Floyd slow-drift “Butterfly Net” features “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”-style organ action. But even when Desire errs on the digital side, for an album with such a coherent vibe, it’s remarkable how many variations on the formula it fits in. “Pretty In Possible,” on which Polachek unironically sings the phrase “that is bae,” is built around a scatty vocal melody seemingly inspired by “Tom’s Diner.” The bass-blasted “Bunny Is A Rider” laces whistling into hiccuping, Timbaland-inspired future-funk. She conjures holographic Chris Isaak vibes on “Crude Drawing Of An Angel” and closes out the album with Roches-esque choral rounds on “Billions,” after swooning about “sexting sonnets under the tables.” And then there’s the one with Grimes and Dido.
“Fly To You” is one of the simplest, most understated tracks on Desire — an airy synth-smeared love song with a lightweight drum ‘n’ bass beat and crystalline acoustic guitar, something like PinkPantheress drunk on Enya and Everything But The Girl. At first it felt slight to me, more muted and wispy than I wanted from such a marquee collaboration. On subsequent listens, the track’s beauty has come into full bloom. Grimes and Dido each get simple, heartfelt verses about tenderness spiked with trepidation. Polachek’s refrain is about a lover who alters her introversion: “I fly to you/ After all the tears you’re all I need/ I fly to you/ Not just somewhere deep inside of me.” Near the end, Grimes and Polachek’s parts are gorgeously overlaid, and then Dido emerges for one last spotlight moment. Hearing these two guests thriving on such a stellar track is nourishing to the soul.
It’s pretty nice to hear Polachek killing it, too. Near the end of Chairlift’s run, I wondered whether “indie” pop acts like that could ever get over the hump to be embraced as pop music on a mainstream level. Polachek’s solo arc has rendered that question irrelevant, at least in her case. In recent years she’s brushed up with the masses via a stint opening for Dua Lipa and gone viral on TikTok, neither of which landed her on the radio or the Hot 100. In the big picture, the lack of a true commercial breakthrough hasn’t mattered. The cult of Caroline is devoted. This album reminds us why.
Desire, I Want To Turn Into You is out now on Perpetual Novice.