Caroline Polachek Welcomed Toronto to Her Island

Queen Elizabeth Theatre, April 17

With George Clanton

Photo: Stephen McGill

BY Tom BeedhamPublished Apr 18, 2023

Shoulders back and head straight, Caroline Polachek strode across the volcanic stage set at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre like it was a runway, hit her mark, and greeted a sold out crowd with an invitation and a spell: "Welcome to my island / Hope you like me, you ain't leavin'."

Self-described as a "walk of shame" and an expression of "ego at its core," "Welcome to My Island" lays down some important rules for Desire, I Want to Turn Into You. The first track on the album, it also channels Homer's telling of Odysseus's journey home to his family, cataloguing his misadventures being tempted and held captive by witches and nymphs along the way, an epic document interrogating repression and the unrelenting nature of desire.

Even if we distance ourselves from what we desire, desire itself continues to flow in that direction, connecting us in a material relationship. If Polachek's second solo album under her own name is an island, it exists within a greater body of influence, densely populated with references to everything from ancient myth to the intangible networked living of contemporary existence, all continuously crashing into its shores like great ocean flows and triggering different listening experiences on each play. 

Polachek reflects those influences with shapeshifting vocals and an outlandish (if arena ready) pop maximalism that borrows sources from around the world (flamenco guitars, bagpipes). So it was only fair game that in Toronto, she quickly chased her introduction with a taste of what came before on her debut album Pang, dropping "Hit Me Where It Hurts" and its own references to Achilles and Greek myth into play.

It could sound like dry material for a pop concert, but fans who've paid attention to the roll-out for Desire know Polachek is ready to enliven it all with cheek and sincerity. For the Toronto stop of her Spiraling Tour, she repurposed the dance routines from TV spots and music videos for tracks like "Welcome to My Island," "Sunset," and "Smoke," pantomiming palm trees and whipping her hair around during the "Billions" guitar solo while sperm cell visuals radiated from the centre of the video backdrop. 

When the teasing whistle that signals the opening of two-year-old single "Bunny is a Rider" and its ode to going dark online played over the PA, phones shot up as Polachek swirled across the stage, pretending to peek around corners as if hiding from the audience, other times treating the front row like they were characters in her odyssey; reaching out and singing, with undeniable veracity, "I never felt so close to you," further tethering the philosophical and ephemeral themes of Desire to the physical sphere of the here and now.

That didn't always work. Shouting out her "Fly to You" collaborators Dido and Grimes, Polachek told the crowd the track is "about clearing the air after a long misunderstanding or distance and just reaching out" before letting its rushing breaks flutter throughout the theatre. Unfortunately the track's structural insistence on interlocking melodies means it leans hard on its identity as an ensemble piece, so without everyone on hand it ages quickly. However, deployed live in album sequence between the euphoric pop of "I Believe" and the folk warmth of "Blood and Butter" (after a brief excursion into "Pang") it proved a necessary bit of functional continuity. It's all connected, after all.

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