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Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Observer

Desire, Caroline Polachek wants to turn into you

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Caroline Polachek’s sophomore solo album, “Desire, I Want to Turn Into You,” has a song for everyone — “White Lotus” season two fans, students studying abroad in Greece and Rome, enjoyers of long drives by the beach and anybody who has looked into somebody else’s eyes and wondered what they were thinking.

It’s the intellectual pop album of the summer. Written at the base of Mount Etna in Sicily, the album’s atmosphere reflects the place of its conception. The scope is both expansive like the glittering Mediterranean Sea and foreboding like a volcanic explosion. It’s the euphoria of love and the shadow of heartbreak. And, I bet it’ll be playing on your car radio approximately five to six months from now. 

Polachek is like a siren beckoning you to her summer oasis in the album opener, “Welcome to My Island.” Her crisp and soaring wail as she sings, “Desire / I wanna turn into you,” is punctured by backup vocals that feel like a wave and squawking seagulls. The song feels like running into the arms of your lover on the beach. Then, the scope snaps back to Polachek as her voice goes from lyrical to rhythmic, rapping “Go forget the rules and forget your friends / Just you and your reflection.” Her bel canto operatic training and indie-pop lyricism help her hit soaring notes as she introduces listeners to the expanse of the album: Here’s my island where I am totally in charge, yet totally isolated. Here’s how desire can make you selfish.

From the opening, Polachek grapples with the dynamics of desire and the self. In the last song of the album, “Billions,” she highlights the messiness of selfishly wanting things and selflessly wanting people (if that’s even possible). Lines like “Hand it over, broker / Give me the closure” and “Cornucopeiac / Yeah, my cup overfloweth” evoke excess (“XS”) and abundance, physical sensuality at its finest. The bass and Polachek’s angelic voice — the only two constants in the beginning — get crowded out by a wild electric guitar and a children’s choir singing, “Oh, I never felt so close to you!” The transition suggests that desire is the driving force behind both greed and charity.

In “Blood and Butter,” she asks how far this “desire as charity” thing can go. It’s selflessness to the most extreme. Polachek wants to abandon her body and become her lover, singing, “Say you want to show me a place / The place is here, the here inside you,” and “Oh I get / Closer than your new tattoo.” It’s body horror posed as the peak of romance. Throughout the song, Polachek’s voice switches from rhythmic and low to lyrical and soaring, reflecting the pain and pleasure that come from letting yourself get swept away by a new relationship. As she sings, “Look at how I forget who I was / Before I was the way I am with you,” I wonder if the pleasure of desire is worth the pain of losing yourself. 

Oh, the song also features bagpipes.

“Blood and Butter” is the thesis of the album. It’s about the difficulty of human connection. No matter what we do, we will never know what another person is thinking, even if Polachek can climb into her lover’s skin. “Blood and Butter” is about the delusion of thinking you can get that close to somebody, to know them better than you know yourself. “Blood and Butter” is desire. No matter how close you are, you can never get close enough; if you do, it comes at a price. As Cat Zhang from Pitchfork Magazine says in her (much more poignant) review of the album, “Being close to is still not the same as being subsumed by, having turned into. So we nudge and nudge and nudge, never quite reaching fulfillment, longing until the end.” 

If “Blood and Butter” is desire, “I Believe” pushes past it and becomes something more like love. Written for her late friend Sophie, who passed away in 2021, the song serves as both a celebratory memorial and a joyous assertion that love will persevere. Dramatic synth noises that sound fit for a Wii combat video game make it seem like Polachek is ready to fight to defend her belief, too. Even her foreboding lyrics like “Violent love, feel my embrace, oh” sound more optimistic: “Fall in love, feel my embrace, oh.” She sings about seeing her friend again despite the circumstances, “I don’t know, but I believe / We’ll get another day together.” Desire, in this case, is perseverance, is grief, is love. 

She says it’s a miracle that “You made it home / With silver string unbroken,” referring to the mythological silver chord that connects the higher self and the physical body. She is surprised that her desire hasn’t consumed her completely. She’s still intact. It’s a joyous celebration about staying true to herself and the truest love of her life — her art. 

Released on Valentine’s Day, “Desire, I Want To Turn Into You” is a banger of an album that’s been on repeat on my headphones for the last week, and I don't think I will get tired of it soon. With Polachek’s impressive vocals and precise artistic vision, this release might go down as album of the year and it’s only February.

Album: “Desire, I Want to Turn Into You”

Artist: Caroline Polachek

Label: Perpetual Novice

If you like: Rina Sawayama, Sophie

Shamrocks: 4/5