Often times when an album centers itself on the expression and indulgence of a single emotion, it seems to falter in its execution, crafting and molding something that seems to simultaneously lack the satisfaction of a full work with a wide spread of features, while painting an image misconstruing that sole feeling it wished to embrace. This record is not an example of that.
Caroline Polachek has only recently become well known to me; her previous record Pang was, as far back as the few months after its release, within my sights as a project well worth looking into, but it took far too long for that suggestion to be taken to heart.
Using Pang as an appetizer while transatlantic, I was able to set the stage for what to expect, to see what kind of artist Caroline is and the kind of atmosphere her music forms. Though even after that forty-six minute, emotive thrill ride, the welcoming to this paradisal, high-strung isle was still a bit of a shock and adjustment. Her angelic swells to begin that greeting were immediately snatched up into a very monotone, direct verse in a way that provided Welcome to My Island a careful saunter, switching between still, direct orders and a main character's journey outset. In a sort of disjointed way, hooking onto a bridge that might lean a little too much to the side, the song fills a niche, a way to set the stage for the romantic twitching of the whole record's vitals.
The daydreaming shift into Pretty in Possible is a great note to continue onto, with a winding instrumental interspersed with careful musings—ranging from softly mourning temporary love, to a bout of near fantasia, pining about lava bubbling to the surface. It's a carefully crafted set of poems, something that—while the instrumental swells in and out with some careful, twisting effects—gives more than it took to build its fantasy.
It's after that where the pacing of the record seems to take a quick detour, shifting from the clicking minimalism of Bunny Is a Rider to the tropical zeal of Sunset, shifting back again to the the winding ambiance of Crude Drawing of an Angel. And even if the first of those three have slowly worn themselves thin in terms of its catchiness, and almost chase scene aesthetics, that chorus ringing out "But I'm so non-physical" is still something that gets to me, feeling like an encapsulation of an artisan's playful labyrinth.
And even if their back-to-back style shifts are still a bit enigmatic in their purpose, both of those latter tracks, especially Sunset, are some of the best material this album has to offer. The opening lyric alone of "These days I wear my body like an uninvited guest / I turn it right and right and right instead of turning left" presents this unraveled tapestry, a timeless work of love-sick longing laid out gently by Caroline's vocal thrills and a flamenco backdrop with just enough detail to make you squint at it a little closer. Crude Drawing of an Angel is what quickly derails the very uplifting, exciting energy of the former track though, with deep synth swells starting it all off, before painting with some of the most affecting poetry on the entire album. By no means is it the most thrilling, and I do wish that it had more time to stretch out and fill itself in with even more detail—simply because of how beautifully every part of it works together.
I Believe might be the most confounding to me, even though its messaging and relation to SOPHIE and how Caroline knew her is genuinely appreciated. It's simply a track that feels dated, both in good and bad ways, giving something that feels alien without feeling too experimental or daring. The instrumental puts in a good word, but the lyrics feel at times a bit less impactful, a bit less detailed compared to what's around it.
On the complete other hand, Fly to You has become one of my absolute favorites on the record, pulsating with tons of wild sprints of drum lines and affectual vocals from Caroline alongside Grimes and Dido's appearances. In a way I think it still pairs well with the preceding track, feeling like a goodbye prefaced before a reunion of sorts; it may be a stretch in that connotation, but the dynamics of the tracks work well off of each other, and the instrumental of the latter is yet another great high point—racing past, claustrophobic but intensely yearning.
And the record refuses to let up, then giving a four-tiered blend of tracks most notably led by Blood and Butter, followed by Hopedrunk Everasking, Butterfly Net, and Smoke. The first's cavernous synth backdrop and shimmering leads, mixed and swirled around by Caroline's beautifully cloaked vocal lines, paints one of the most entangled metaphors: "Lying at the foot of a linden in a navel ring inventing June". This whole record's centerpiece of desire, love, longing, fertility feels a bit toppled by this track's forest adventure, with the last vestiges of the album's starting headspace falling to an almost consuming ouroboros for the final fifteen minutes.
Which coincidentally, takes a path from the rapturous, smile-inducing bagpipe ending of Blood and Butter to the skeletal hymn of Hopedrunk Everasking. And though I won't argue that it could've been further helped along, similar to Crude Drawing's need for a bit more space to spread its wings, they both have soul-affecting vocal lines, with the latter being this style's peak with just how angelic and radiant Caroline's performance is. Its occupation of a completely different kind of desire is what makes this track's ethos—and by proxy the whole record—that much more captivating and emotionally cultivating.
Butterfly Net and Smoke feel the most inextricably tied at the hip, even if their instrumental backing and pace are completely disparate to themselves. The "trying to catch your light" of Butterfly Net is what marks it as a kind of evolved desire, feeling more on instinct than on anything else calculated, and it's through that that Smoke's bridge of "Throw it all out and replace it with a brand new kind of crazy" comes to light. The track simply feels like that final note in the same headspace of Butterfly Net and perhaps with the rest of the album, acting as a kind of penultimate epilogue featuring the same melody as Pretty in Possible's starting vocals, just before its own smoke clears and the ouroboros finishes itself off.
Billions is that totalizing end, an absolutely enthralling cornucopia of this entire ethos, and without a doubt one of the greatest left-of-center pop songs I've yet heard. Caroline's affectations paint her as a Dionysian messenger or siren, this pure representation of that very desire she's spent the preceding forty minutes divulging and exploring, clearing out her conscious with the volcanic explosion of this record's character and lust. I really can't praise the song enough, it swirls in on itself in such a pretty way, unlike anything else near its lane.
And so, despite those few choice moments that did in fact make this record at times a bit off-kilter, pushing it a bit too much in one direction, or switching itself through different paths a bit too quickly, this record is overall fantastic and enthralling in a way that not a lot of albums are. The (rarely crude) drawing it sketches is both consistent and pretty dynamic in its buoyancy, floating gently between its peaks and valleys in this thrilling desire; Billions is the main standout, but even then the record before feels vital to experience what gives that track such a grasp as the closer, being all so instinctually brilliant without feeling like it needs to take effort to be this beautiful. Its ethos sometimes plays into its slight faults in a shockingly endearing way, giving it some touch of artistic nausea that turns itself into representative moments in the tracklist; or maybe it's just a kind of self-imposed emotion, a crush that seems to never let you go, even on a trip to a tropical paradise.
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