Caroline Polachek ponders 'Desire' at pop's outer limits
A rabbit standing at the edge of the forest is an omen. Nothing good comes from chasing a rabbit. If for some reason you see a rabbit on the edge of the forest and want to follow it — don't. Think about it: Alice in Wonderland by way of Jefferson Airplane, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Elmer Fudd. When a rabbit appears three songs into Caroline Polachek's sophomore album under her own name, Desire, I Want to Turn Into You, it is a wink, a signifier, a seduction. Not so much of a rabbit or even a "wabbit" but a bunny. It is as if she is a bunny in the shape of a girl. Or a girl standing in front of Plato's Cave, which is actually a Rainforest Café, in a Vivienne Westwood cardigan, being like, "Dirty like it's Earth Day!" Or a girl who is a lady. Or a girl who is a lady who is not tethered to a corporeal form. This is "Bunny is a Rider." A perfect pop song on a record about pop music and its promises. It is a song that treats the rabbit, the wabbit, the bunny at the edge of the woods as a come hither: I dare you.
This album comes at a particularly breathless point in Polachek's career, a rise that has been slow but basically constant for over 15 years. Long gone is that moment when her band Chairlift went from a Brooklyn indie-pop band who toured with Ariel Pink to a band that got its song synced in an iPod Nano commercial. Here she is, a solo artist going on tour with Dua Lipa, co-writing what is possibly the weirdest Beyoncé song of all time, but not actually having to deal with being famous. Instead what she gets to be is an icon to cool kids on the coasts. An it-girl! Kate Bush — whom Polachek is often compared to, much to her chagrin — if she walked for the very hip, very downtown American brand Eckhaus Latta and was an '80s baby. A would-be Steven Meisel muse, standing on a tightrope in leather chaps, hair perfectly gelled into place.
And the thing is: Her music is actually good. It is not all aesthetics and artifice. Her music is not one of those art projects by a fashion person that's like, a white girl in rectangular sunglasses rapping lazily over an 808 (although there is rapping on Desire — oh my god, the rap, let's put a pin in that for a second). Instead, her music bends towards maximalism, against legibility and being mimetic. On 2019's Pang, there were images of magic carpets, being just another girl in the city in a sweater, synthesizers that opened up like portals, a banana that is actually someone's junk. They all seemed indecipherable at first, almost free-associative, until you listened really closely and then you realized she was singing about having your heart broken or trying to be chill and not sad while receiving a dick pic. She writes pop music, but it is slanted and enchanted, imprecise and irregular. And if Pang, which was an alluring but at times slightly underrealized record, catapulted Polachek into the world of being a solo pop auteur, then Desire is the natural next step in evolution.
Here are some of the moods and states of being expressed on Desire: campy, freaky, slutty, dissociated, heady, dangerous, ephemeral. Here is how they manifest: in a children's choir, mayflies in a swimming pool, a butterfly net with a heady and spectral kind of vibe. Like its predecessor, Desire is an extremely cogent listen. All the pieces fit neatly together into a record that, like Pang, continues to explore the nature of the pop form. Pop on the outskirts of pop. To be more specific: It's a reflection on the pop of the '90s and the early aughts, the stuff where on one end you have the sharp, arty electropop of Chicks on Speed or Ladytron, and on the other, the buoyant and slightly feral bubblegum of Aqua and the Cardigans. The music happening on the fringes of the whole Neptunes-Britney Spears thing on "Slave 4 U." Desire is also the reprise of her work with Danny L Harle, a former member of the experimental pop label-cum-collective PC Music, who very much traffics in that sort of turn of the century cultural voidism: pop switched on.
On "Pretty in Possible," there is the IV drip of bassline that chases after Polachek's vocals, followed by a click track that kind of gives off a chintzy, '90s, Moloko vibe. "Crude Drawing of an Angel," is like the needle drop in Portishead's "Glory Box," where it feels like gravity is drawing you into the molten core of the sun. "Draw the blinds / Draw the bath," she sings over an aqueous hit from the drum machine. And on "Fly to You," which features Grimes and Dido, whose No Angel feels like a Polachek ur-text, is lush, full of little yelps, synthesizers that mimic strings, the chiming of a bell. It's huge, melodramatic. "After all the tears, you're all I need," Polachek repeats in her resonant soprano.
And those are just the quieter songs, which I would argue are some of the less interesting, less risky offerings on the record. When Polachek goes bigger, leans deeper into being a maximalist, things are fraught but also exciting. "Sunset," is the record's nadir, where the maximalism goes too far. It is a deeply unlistenable pastiche of flamenco music where Polachek is really trying to sing like Shakira for some reason — a fluke on an otherwise excellent record. Opener "Welcome to My Island," starts with Polachek wailing like she's at the walls of Troy, and then a synth gets arpeggiated and she starts singing about her island that she lives on like a brat. And then, around the song's midpoint, she starts rapping! Like Debbie Harry on Blondie's "Rapture." The rap, which is in the last half of the song, is nonsensical. The first time I listened, I found it deeply cringey in the same vein as "Sunset." But the cringe is the point, you see. It's all a part of the superstructure of the record: Desire is an album that plays with pop's ridiculousness, the improbability of rhyming "water's turning red" and "can't go to bed." It's not always successful (see again: "Sunset"), but when it is, when that irony matches up with the architecture of Polachek's pop, like when it does on "Bunny," or when Polachek threatens to not let you leave her island on "Island," that absurdity feels really exciting. It feels like a pop music of ideas, not self-serious, but rigorous, muscular.
Best of all is "Billions," which is perhaps, next to "Bunny," one of the best songs Polachek has written. She once called the song "tantric." And indeed, it is. It is an incredibly sexy, incredibly weird song. There are headless angels, dead on arrival. A guy who "lies like a sailor," but "loves like a painter." The overflowing of a cup. A synth that is actually maybe sounds like someone blowing into a shofar. A synth that sounds like someone smashing a ring of Saturn with a sledgehammer. The Trinity Youth Choir singing, "Iiiiiiiii never felt so close to you!" Polachek being like: "billlllliyahnzzzz." It's impressive, and on a record where influence is the point, "Billions," exists in a swirl all on its own. In its hyper-specific, hyper-strange images there is a beautiful clarity. You feel what she's feeling. Instead of being merely referential to pop music, it tells us where pop music can go: to startling lands unseen.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.