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Caroline Polachek’s ‘Desire, I Want To Turn Into You’ Is A Stunning Exercise In Maximalism

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Nearly a decade before she cemented herself as one of the reigning queens of the indie art-pop scene, Caroline Polachek arrived in pop’s mainstream in grand fashion. Tucked away between enduring hits such as “Drunk In Love” and “Partition,” lies “No Angel,” a standout cut from Beyoncé’s industry-shifting eponymous 2013 album, which was co-written and co-produced by Polachek. That song’s breathless carnality and penchant for pairing spacious production alongside subverted song structures reverberates across the universe of Desire, I Want To Turn Into You — Polachek’s fourth studio album and second under her own name.

Across twelve tracks that each function as their own planets in the solar system of her own Desire, Polachek weaves the digital and the analog to create a new plane of existence through which she assesses, internalizes, defeats, and allows herself to be consumed by desire. When she “turns into desire,” she is not just seeking solace in the pleasure of her wants, she is quite literally transforming her very being into the emotion of desire itself. The all-consuming nature of desire transforms both Polachek herself and the world around her, as outlined by the album’s opening track, fourth single, and steadfast thesis, “Welcome to My Island.” With a vocal that stretches from belts and screams to faux whistle notes and robotic spoken word chants, “Island’s” balance of Polachek’s airy tone and angsty synths lays the foundation for the rest of the album.

A stunning exercise in maximalism, Desire triumphs by way of Polachek’s talents as a producer and curator. She understands when to pull back and when to keep her foot on the gas until a song is hurtling through the new solar system she’s created through an amalgam of expressive vocal performances, oscillating synths, and flamenco guitars. “Pretty In Possible” finds Polachek pairing a “Tom’s Diner”-esque intro with a decidedly plasticky breakbeat that fully embraces the vastness of the digital grounding of her world of desire. The imagery is carnal with a hint of despondence — “With your lipstick on my thigh / Drink the tears until they dry” — a recurring convergence of moods. “Bunny Is A Rider,” Desire’s much-lauded lead single, is even sharper in the context of the full record. Between devil-may-care whistles and infantile background coos that recall Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody,” the record deftly balances the effervescence of pop music with the coldness of the genre’s frayed edges. “Sunset,” like “Bunny,” and most of the album’s tracks for that matter, is one of those songs that reaches out from the tracklist and smacks you across the face. Steeped in the intrinsic urgency and passion of flamenco, “Sunset” is an intelligent analog complement to the staunchly digital firestorm that is Desire. The song’s themes of disillusionment should feel incongruent with the warmth of the instrumentation, but that’s the hat trick of contrast that Polachek has perfected with this record.

Desire has its fair share of bombast, but its quieter moments are equally rewarding. “Crude Drawing Of An Angel” is a mind-bending track, one that simultaneously exudes seduction and feels like a horrifying pool of squelching quicksand. When Polachek sings “all or nothing,” she flings herself between extremes that are certain to tear her very being apart in her pursuit of desire. The song’s histrionic pre-chorus outlines the insidious underbelly of Desire: how do you reconcile inevitable gratification with pockets of desire that are simply greed disguised as needs? It’s an aching slow burn that actually reaches its moment of release in “I Believe,” yet another standout that finds shimmering synths stabbing through the production, with Polachek’s falsetto piercing the volcanoes of sound that populate the album’s overarching soundscape.

With Desire, Polachek has unlocked a level of self-understanding that many artists strive for but never quite reach. If pop music at its best is the synthesis of the grandest human emotions into bite-sized pieces of saccharine melody, then pop music at its most abrasive and extreme is the filtering of the most minute and overwhelming intersections of human emotion into songs that both rely on and reject traditional notions of structure. Whether she’s anchoring her songs with wordless vocalizations (“Smoke”) or idiosyncratic tests of the elasticity of syllables (“Billions”), Polachek is succinctly conveying the allure of the danger that is intertwined with desire. Like any great pop star, she even invents her own language to make sense of the sheer vastness of this solar system of desire. “Hopedrunk,” “everasking,” “Wikipediated,” “mythicalogical,” you name it, or, rather, Polachek names these things, as if she is an omniscient creator reigning over her own personal Eden.

“Billions,” the album’s second single, closes the record with a bright-eyed children’s choir. It’s an obvious callback to the church bells that close the summery “Fly To You,” but, perhaps more pertinently, it’s a production motif that drives home the cyclical nature of life itself. In tandem, Polachek and the choir sing, “I never felt so close,” a reminder that pursuit, not desire, is the real reward. The implementation of a children’s choir brings to light voices that haven’t yet been tainted by desire which, in turn, build both “Billions” and Desire into odes to the ways in which the pursuit of desire ultimately leads you back to yourself with a deeper understanding of who you actually are — in any plane of existence.