When New-Age Music Gets Real

Caroline Polachek’s Pure Moods is pure magic.

Caroline Polachek performing against a red background
Matthew Baker/Getty

If you’d told any music connoisseur living in the year 1994 that one of the hottest albums of the year 2023 would sound like Pure Moods, the relaxing compilation CD then being sold on TV commercials for $17.99 (plus shipping and handling), that person might have laughed. But if you’d told me the same thing in 1994, I’d have said that the future sounded cool. I was 7 years old. Pure Moods ads, laden with unicorns and Enya, were welcome bursts of enchantment between Nickelodeon episodes.

Caroline Polachek, a 37-year-old pop innovator, may well have had the same relationship with those ads. During childhood, many of us Millennials only ever got to catch glimmers, like rare fireflies, of the sound known as new age. A calming blend of electronic instrumentation and global folk traditions, the style had its roots in the hippie era but became a commercial phenomenon in the late ’80s. During the ’90s, it was absorbed back into pop and rock, thanks to trip-hop and Tool and Madonna’s Ray of Light, leaving the purest of mood music to circulate mainly in crystal-healing shops. As my generation grew up, new age seemed a bit like a lost world—a faerie realm we were promised but never got to go to.

Polachek’s new album, Desire, I Want to Turn Into You, locates that realm. It conjures not what new age really was or what it became, but what it once seemed to be from a distance: actual magic. And it represents a culmination for Polachek, who has already cut a shimmering trail through culture. She fronted the aughts indie band Chairlift (you may know it from the 2008 Apple commercial), co-wrote a Beyoncé song (the slick, lithe “No Angel” from 2013), and earned New Yorker profile treatment and the title of Pitchfork’s favorite song of 2021. Her 2019 solo album, Pang, contained the greatest Sade ballad never recorded—light a candle and listen to “Door”—as well as a TikTok hit with the killer title “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings.”

Musically, Polachek has two special assets. One is a voice like a katana, so supple you can’t quite tell where it ends and where the air around it begins, and so strong that it can slay ogres. Her melodies take steep turns that reflect both Polachek’s training in opera and her studying of Auto-Tune, a technology that showed us not just what the human voice couldn’t do, but what it could do yet hadn’t tried. Polachek’s other asset is as a songwriter and producer. She fits with a wave of performer-producers who are fusing hyperactive electronica with plush R&B and pop: Grimes, Janelle Monáe, Charli XCX. Among such peers, she stands out for evocative abstraction, for substance that arises from style. Polachek’s music doesn’t send messages; it creates worlds.

The world of Desire, I Want to Turn Into You is bright and bustling, but it also has the trichromatic simplicity of a Nintendo game. She and her co-producers focus on a few ingredients: keyboards of freshwater clarity, acoustic guitars glowing in reverb, breakbeats that sound like tablas and chimes being struck in intricate patterns. Although it’s based on familiar pop structures, the songwriting has an origami quality of folding and unfolding back on itself, creating pockets and planes. I’m currently fixated on how the first chorus of “Blood and Butter” moves into the song’s second verse: The transition happens in an instant and is like the ringing of a bell, dissipating one universe of vibrations by suggesting another.

All this fanciful, metamorphic sound captures the fanciful, metamorphic desires that Polachek describes in cut-and-paste-style lyrics. The explosive opener, “Welcome to My Island,” announces utopian escape: “Go forget the rules, forget your friends!” Subsequent songs envision miracles including flight, immortality, and love so potent it replaces food and drink. The extremity of Polachek’s yearnings makes them tender, as do hints of darkness in the music: ecstatic yodels verging on murderous screams, bass lines suggesting magma depth. The loss of Polachek’s father (from COVID-19 complications in 2020) and her musical collaborator Sophie (in an accident that shocked the pop world in 2021) looms as Polachek sings, again and again, about wishing to make fleeting joys eternal.

Our imaginary grunge-era music geek might ask: Isn’t an avant-pop Pure Moods, like, way corny? Well, kinda, but let’s think about this for a second. The sophisticated expression of fantasy is one of art’s great missions, uniting Tchaikovsky with the Wu-Tang Clan. When we say something is corny, we mean that it is naive, indulging simple urges so uncritically as to be useless. Polachek, ever with her eye on mortality, isn’t doing that. When the final and most stunning song on the album, “Billions,” concludes with the singing of a youth choir, the effect is heartbreaking. Kids can believe that places like Polachek’s island are real. Adults know they’ll only ever get to visit in their mind for a while.