Album Review: Caroline Polachek, ‘Desire, I Want to Turn Into You’

    How do you capture something as messy and intangible as love? How do you pursue, actually believe in it? Can it be something to hold onto, untangled from the ephemeral trappings of desire? Try putting it into words, and you can’t help but navigate those questions through some form of figurative language. Thankfully, it’s a tool Caroline Polachek uses both deftly and imaginatively: “I’m feeling like a butterfly trapped inside a plane,” she sang on the Pang track ‘Hit Me Where It Hurts’, describing love – or romantic anticipation – as a dizzying, out-of-body experience. On ‘Butterfly Net’, a highlight from Polachek’s new album Desire, I Want to Turn Into You, we once again find her mid-flight, but the song moves to a different kind of transcendence: floating in a dream, love appears to her as an angel so radiant she can barely see herself. “There I was with my butterfly net/ Trying to catch your light,” she sings, soaring and desperate.

    You’d figure the intense longing at the core of Pang could only have deepened in the years since – and you wouldn’t be wrong – but Desire is framed as somewhat a departure from that record: looser, dirtier, and more bizarre, its metaphors hewing closer to the earth. It’s not any less cohesive than its predecessor, but the boundaries here are more porous and abstract, with sounds darting in all sorts of different directions. There’s a duality to the album’s title, depending on whether you choose “you” or desire itself as the object of obsession – but you could also place as much emphasis on the motion of turning as the emotion of wanting. It’s no coincidence her tour in support of the LP is billed The Spiraling Tour; Polachek has described the vibier, more amorphous tracks on it as exercises in “lateral spiralling.” It’s not just intellectual nonsense – you can hear it in ‘Pretty in Possible’, whose free-wheeling nature urges her to ask, “Who can afford that kind of free?”

    The song is followed by ‘Bunny Is a Rider’, which felt at once slippery and slick as a single and remains just as inscrutable as the third track on the album. You can picture Bunny, untethered from the corporeal form, shifting in and out of the various places Polachek graciously transports us to; and she, in turn, is able to find rapture in the “nonphysical,” even if her escapist tendencies can only provide a fleeting kind of magic. The fact that she allows herself to venture off the beaten path does nothing to detract from the emotions at play, though, which is the real miracle of Desire. There is a physicality and vulnerability to the record as much as there is humour and surrealism – they’re all part of her “twisted, manic, cornucopeiac” vision. ‘Pretty in Possible’ might be enchantingly resistant to any sort of structure, but it still burns hot with desire. The flamenco-inspired ‘Sunset’, meanwhile, flutters to a more familiar rhythm but can’t quite drift away entirely into the horizon, each element clipped with precision and dominated by an effortless pop instinct.

    As the album progresses, there are songs that occupy more distinctly liminal spaces. ‘Crude Drawing of an Angel’ lumbers into a murky realm where love is overwhelming and inextricable from violence, while the ecstatic ‘I Believe’ embraces its brightest possibilities. Without showing much concern for marketability, Polachek makes sure we’re granted immediate access to her world, from the bombastic introduction of ‘Welcome to My Island’ to the effervescent ‘Smoke’. The most thrilling moments, though, arise from what she calls “the upward spiral,” which “is maybe the closest thing we can experience to heaven.” It’s the hardest turn to pull off, because it requires expressions of sincerity and conviction that cannot be faked. But when Polachek attempts to channel it, she doesn’t hold back – going so far as to include features from Grimes and Dido on ‘Fly to You’, Celtic bagpipes on ‘Blood and Butter’, and a children’s choir on the closer ‘Billions’, whose final declaration – “I’ve never felt so close to you” – reaches cosmic levels of extravagance.

    The energy that runs through Desire is both pure and born of intention, esoteric and breathtakingly beautiful. But is it enough to complete the transformation Polachek hints at? She flies to, not into; on ‘Blood and Butter’, the want is to “walk beside you, needing nothing,” to “dive through your face/ to the sweetest kind of pain.” On ‘Sunset’, she finds comfort in “the hand that’s holding mine,” admits that “every spiral brings me back into your arms again.” Is finding home always the end of the journey? The answer may be no, but through it Polachek manages to unlock a kind of euphoria that’s different from, maybe deeper than, the one in ‘Welcome to My Island’, where it’s “just you and your reflection.” There’s no word as to what it looks like, but Polachek moulds it into a mess that’s all hers, fragile and revelatory. “How does it feel to know your final form?” she asks on ‘Hope Everasking’, gesturing at the nature of the question itself: elusive and eternal. If Desire only catches a divine glimpse of those larger-than-life ideas – love, hope, heaven on Earth – who could really ask for more?

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    How do you capture something as messy and intangible as love? How do you pursue, actually believe in it? Can it be something to hold onto, untangled from the ephemeral trappings of desire? Try putting it into words, and you can't help but navigate...Album Review: Caroline Polachek, 'Desire, I Want to Turn Into You'