Caroline Polachek Desire, I Want to Turn into You review

Desire, I Want to Turn into You review | Caroline Polachek’s mashed-up rollercoaster ride

★★★☆☆
Desire, I Want to Turn into You, Caroline Polachek’s second solo album under her given name, has been one of this year’s most anticipated releases. And whilst there’s plenty to love about it (it has, after all, been released on Valentine’s Day), its experimentation doesn’t always stack up.

Her debut, Pang, came out to critical acclaim in 2019; since then, Polachek has been celebrated for her eclectic sound, earning her the accolade of “Gen Z’s Kate Bush” from The Guardian’s Shaad D’Souza. But whilst Polachek may name Bush among her key influences, she was piqued by the comparison.

“While I realise it’s a huge compliment”, she wrote on Twitter in January, “I’m endlessly fucking annoyed by being told I’m “this generation’s Kate Bush”. SHE is our generation’s Kate Bush, she is an active artist who’s topping the charts, and is irreplaceable”.

Ostensibly, Polachek’s beef is with critics who overlook Bush’s thriving career – but her objections aren’t entirely motivated by respect for the older artist. Being this generation’s somebody implicitly strips Polachek of her own unique sound. She added at the end of her Twitter screed: “I […] am this generation’s Caroline Polachek”.

Caroline Polachek Desire, I Want To Turn Into You

There is much to celebrate in Desire, I Want to Turn Into You: Polachek’s sense of eclecticism propels the album, which features bagpipes, children’s choirs, Spanish guitar, and a demo of a giggling baby (who is the daughter of co-producer Danny L Harle). But for all its eccentricities, the album does more to confirm than dispel the image of Polachek as this generation’s someone – if not Kate Bush then, variously, Shakira (‘Sunset’), Sinéad O’Connor (‘Crude Drawing Of An Angel’), Neneh Cherry (‘Pretty Impossible’), and others.

It’s not that it isn’t Polachek’s sound – it distinctively is – but except for the album’s indulgently ‘80s-esque opening (and best) track, ‘Welcome To My Island’, the rest feels like a mashed-up rollercoaster ride through the ‘90s and early ‘00s. For anyone who lived through that period, there’s something deliciously nostalgic about the album (especially ‘I Believe’, a song whose keyboard stabs sound like they’ve been demoed from Steps’ ‘Tragedy’). But is that how an artist still making their name wants to be heard?

At its weakest, Polachek’s eclecticism feels more derivative than innovative, and a focus on snazzy sound effects seems to have come at the expense of solid or memorable melodies. Add all that to the vertiginous oscillation of styles – from jungle to flamenco to trip-hop to dubstep – and you have an album that doesn’t cohere.

Then again, that sense of incoherence may not be accidental. Polachek has intimated that the album is “in touch with the chaos and upheaval of the pandemic” and that much of its “sound was inspired by the feeling of being in a city”.

Caroline Polachek

Even the spectres of Steps and Shakira may not be inadvertent: Polachek clearly has a sense of humour and a feeling for pop’s fun side, and her album indeed distils – and toys with – the musical mood of an era.

In the end, it’s hard to be too critical of Desire, I Want to Turn Into You – Polachek’s experimental spirit still guides the album, and even if it doesn’t quite gel, the ingredients are there. But let’s hope we’re seeing the last of pandemic-inspired albums. Yes, it was a strange and chaotic time, but does anyone really want to listen to music that reflects that in 2023? No, we want to whack the album’s opening track up to max and party like it’s 1999.


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