Desire, I Want to Turn Into You

by Caroline Polachek  

Words: Morgan Dethlefsen
April 16, 2023

“Look over the edge, but not too far.” 

This phrase–a lyric from “I Believe”–perhaps best encapsulates Caroline Polachek’s musical strategy. From her first release under her own name, Pang, to her new album Desire, I Want to Turn Into You, Polachek has always been carefully peering over the edges of pop music, existing at its borders without sacrificing memorable hooks, catchy melodies, and anthemic choruses for the sake of experimentation. In a single phrase, Polachek makes the experimental accessible and the mainstream experimental. Her latest effort Desire is the seminal manifestation of her unique melange of experimental pop, even more so than its predecessor.

It is October 2019. Caroline Polachek–who made a name for herself as, among other things, half of the indie duo Chairlift and the writer of Beyonce’s “No Angel”–has released 5 singles since June, starting with “Door” and including would-be sleeper hit “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings.” Since Chairlift’s disbandment in 2017, Polachek had kept busy with the experimental electronic album Drawing the Target Around the Arrow (under the moniker CEP), a Calvin Klein campaign for Solange, and a feature on Charli XCX’s critically acclaimed mixtape Pop 2. But now, Polachek appeared ready to leave her mark on her own turf, enlisting the help of PC Music producer extraordinaire Danny L Harle.

The end result was Pang, an experimental, catchy pop record full of blips, beeps, synths, and Polachek’s impressive vocal abilities–an incredibly wide range fine-tuned from years of opera training, and one that can transition beautifully from a song into a scream. The album heavily draws from the hyperpop sound pioneered by PC Music producers. Having been released in 2019, the year that gave us 1000 gecs, Charli, and Reflections, this sound was the culmination of years of development at the borders of pop and electronic music spearheaded by the likes of SOPHIE, Danny L Harle, and A. G. Cook. However, Pang’s hyperpop inspirations don’t overshadow its mainstream appeal: “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” with its tones of 80s soft rock pastiche, would go viral on TikTok in early 2022. Polachek looked over the edge of pop music with Pang in 2019, but didn’t go too far; Desire would cement this as Polachek’s strategy.

This strategy was made clear with Desire’s rollout, starting with the release of “Bunny Is A Rider” in July 2021, a pop and R&B summer jam. This was followed by the choral, ethereal, Björk-esque “Billions” in January 2022, followed by the Barcelona inspired flamenco pop song “Sunset” in October.

Desire immediately kicks into gear with the first track, “Welcome to My Island,” a playful, anthemic, 80’s pop rock inspired song about being stuck in your head. While the song makes relatively safe production choices–synth-driven 80’s inspired pop songs with danceable drum patterns are a dime a dozen this decade–Polachek balances this safety with more experimental vocal deliveries, from wild a capella siren calls to half-sung verses and a spoken word bridge. Additionally experimental is her signature songwriting, weaving abstract and metaphorical with literal and physical throughout the song. This production and songwriting combination continues into “Pretty In Possible,” with Polachek effortlessly switching between her literal descriptions of “mayflies in the swimming pool” to a metaphorical “eye on the lane and... eye on the lava” over a 90’s trip hop beat.

Polachek’s lyrical mystique never relents throughout the course of Desire’s forty-five minutes. As Desire cools off from the energy of its first 4 tracks with “Crude Drawing of an Angel,” Polachek’s lyrics take an almost American Horror Story-esque turn to them, leaving the listener wondering the subject’s fate. “Blood and Butter” sees Polachek inventing words, describing her lover as “mythicalogical” and “Wikipediated”.

Polachek’s musical influences throughout the record are vast, from Catalan flamenco pop (“Sunset”) and early 2000’s Euro-club 2-step (“I Believe”) to drum and bass (“Fly To You”) and and Celtic folktronica (“Blood and Butter”). Desire greatly outshines Pang in this diversity of sound. True, Pang looked to the future of pop music in 2019; however, this future–the PC Music/hyperpop sound–permeates almost every song on the record. As hyperpop became more saturated, Polachek began looking elsewhere: while she had hitherto existed at the borders of pop music, she now sought to draw them herself. With Desire, she shot, and drew the target around the arrow. Desire’s cornucopia of influences is Polachek’s crafted future, pushing what can be considered “pop” even further.

Finally, Polachek has an affinity for self-referencing throughout Desire. Musically, “I Believe” contains a whistled sample of the laughing in “Bunny Is a Rider;” the bridge of “Smoke” interpolates the melody of “Pretty in Possible;” and the bagpipe solo in “Blood and Butter” is the same melody as Grimes’s verse in “Fly to You.”

The landscape of pop music around Desire–especially that of the last year–makes it ever more exceptional. Many recent high profile pop releases have failed to match the experimental ambition that Polachek captures on Desire. The Guardian described Charli XCX’s 2022 album CRASH (which Polachek was featured on) as “playing by pop’s rules;” Pitchfork criticized Rina Sawyama’s sophomore album Hold the Girl as “ambitious in the same way as putting on all the clothes in your closet;” The Wall Street Journal called Taylor Swift’s Midnights, “a little safe… ultimately unsatisfying…” In a period of safety and security, Polachek took the risk of experimentation, and the reward of Desire’s forward-thinking sound and lyrics combined with Polachek’s ear for pop earworms made it a worthwhile one. Pitchfork described Desire as the “best album of her career… a transformative pop experience, a passionate, richly melodic odyssey;” to Rolling Stone, it’s “a kinetic example of what happens when pop sets out to transcend its own limits.” Desire, I Want to Turn Into You is one of this decade’s most forward-thinking pop albums. It is a testament to Caroline Polachek’s songwriting, production, and experimentation. Polachek makes this masterpiece in experimentation accessible; however, allowing her to not only push pop’s boundaries, but draw them herself.






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