In the opening moments of Caroline Polachek’s new album, ‘Desire, I Want To Turn Into You’ – the second under her real name, and seventh overall – the alt-pop singer wails in vocal intervals for 25 seconds. Soaring atop an operatic howl to a vast, wild screech, before climbing to a top register whistle, it’s immediately clear that we’re standing on the shores of an entirely different world to the gothic castle that was 2019’s ‘Pang’. “Welcome to my island,” she says. “Hope you like me / You ain’t leaving.”
The track was recorded during the end of the sessions for debut album ‘Pang’ – a surrealist torrent of emotion about the liminal space between relationships, which introduced her to a whole new generation of fans – and this sonorous expulsion feels like a reset. Not unlike the frustrated scream you unleash before composing yourself again, ‘Desire…’ is about allowing the “brash and bratty and funny and chaotic and manic” version of yourself to show up, as she shared in a recent interview.
On Polachek’s island, there’s art, mythology, dancing, love, struggle, desire. It’s a haven, and at times an enclosure, to feel on a primal level. But where ‘Pang’ felt like being stuck in quicksand, ‘Desire…’ is a frolicking, bare-footed getaway. The fierce and sassy ‘Bunny Is A Rider’ is a slippery, free-wheeling go-getter who’s always up for the party, while the Andalusian-inspired ‘Sunset’ is wanderlust draped in a fiery red flamenco dress.
This vagabond spirit also finds its way into the organic, woody beats of ‘Blood and Butter’ as her sharp vowels cut the path to a full-on bagpipe solo. Then there’s the spiritual ‘Hopedrunk Everasking’ and psychedelic ‘Butterfly Net’, which feel like oral histories from a wandering bard.
As for Polachek’s classically-trained crescendos, which are always powerful enough to breach the floodgates, these same vocal tricks are used to show off a more free-spirited pop girl. While she may not have opted for a full-on dance record, there are trance influences in the hefty baseline and soft pulse of ‘I Believe’. The intoxicating, shifty ‘Fly To You’, meanwhile, places her seraphic collaborators front and centre – the otherworldly siren call of Grimes paired with Dido’s emotive drawl creating a transportive meeting of forces. “I fly to you, not just somewhere deep inside of me,” Polachek pines.
The singer’s typically high-drama storytelling arises in the climactic ‘Billions’, which pairs random but deftly formed couplets like “Sexting sonnets / Under the Table” and “Lies like a sailor / But he loves like a painter”. But Polachek’s grandest live ambitions for this album can be best heard in the anthemic ‘Smoke’, which is complete with a sing-song earworm refrain that will surely rise to the occasion in front of a crowd.
On ‘Desire…’ Polachek is staring out at the sunny horizon and beyond. The experimental star not only surrenders to big pop moments, but signs hand-painted details where you can choose to follow the clues in search of something deeper, or simply lose yourself in the ocean swell.