Greater Than the Sum of Our Parts

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Review: Emmy the Great, “Virtue”

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Album cover showing Emmy next to a gingerbread house

I was fortunate enough to see Emmy perform some of the material from this album at the Purcell Room at the South Bank Centre back in March (which is, by the way, an excellent venue to experience any kind of music in, given how perfectly acoustically designed it is for listening), and so listening to the album now does tend to bring back images of blue filtered lights and Emmy tapping hypnotically at a string of sleigh bells. It also moves me to use that tired old saw of reviewing, “it sounds better live”, with the addendum “please don’t listen to this album through rubbish laptop speakers”. Really, Ms Moss’s voice deserves better reproduction than that.

As to the album itself, I suspect the term “mature” should be used to describe what has happened both to the subject matter and the lyrics; imagine a whole album of “Absentee”, with the aching undercurrent of loss toned down to barely subliminal levels. This is what maturity means in writing – becoming more literary, with more allusions to more out-of-sight touchstones that can be appreciated by a wider audience, but losing some of the bite that characterised First Love.

“Creation”, for example, is an examination of the coming-of-age story and the way it is always focussed on the achievements and trials of the young man, never the young woman; it is musically beautiful with hints of threat, and Emmy’s voice has become clearer and more powerful with time, it is a more passionate and chilling essay than anything anyone has ever written in their exercise books come exam time, but it is still an essay.

“Cassandra” is one of the the more solid songs on this album, and has been the one which caught in my head for the longest. The song itself cycles through images and notes on the unavoidable nature of beginnings and endings, with the motif of Cassandra (“keep it down”), the tragically-ignored prophetess of Greek legend, revising itself downward toward the question that makes up the backbone of it all: “What good is love if it always ends?”.

“Iris” is an uptempo track, which makes skillful use of dissonance; the twinkly melody and mentions of radiance bouncing off “what if the sight of you could take my eyes”. Like “Cassandra”, Iris is a single-statement/question song, in this instance, what the word is for the emotion the narrator or the subject (it’s not clear) is experiencing. It seems a little empty, made up of syllables to encase the central question, unlike the capsule stories which filled out much of First Love.

“A Woman, A Woman, A Century of Sleep” is, along with “Dinosaur Sex”, for me the stand-out track on this album; performed at the Purcell Room gig as the first of Emmy’s new material it produced shivers under the blue light, and the floral imagery seemed to crawl along the verses as it does over the walls of the house in the lyrics, punctured and punctuated by reference to pipes running bleach, or pipes running bone. Ordinarily I am not a great fan of anything which declares “I am a w0man” (being raised by second-wavers tends to leave one groaning “oh not this bloody affirmation again”), but as with “We Almost Had A Baby”, the shadows at the edge of the words keep the affirrmation from becoming too saccharine.

Leaving my favourite song from this album for last, there is “Dinosaur Sex”, which I am going to include a video of (from the performance of it that I saw, in fact – isn’t YouTube wonderful?).

“Dinosaur Sex” has a broader, almost country feel to it musically, and shows a return to the darker and more final imagery and language which I am more familiar with from songs like “Paper Trails” and “Two Steps Forward”. The chorus is simple and catchy, the verses haunting and somehow sounding like the memory of long-ago summers. It is a very evocative and ties in with “Cassandra”, prophecying doom in sweet tones.

In conclusion, then, Virtue is a more mature album, a more literary album, but one which in moving away from the adolescent themes of death and love has lost some of the emotional weight that First Love carried; however, almost all of the songs Virtue contains are given a significant polish by being performed live, so if it is possible I would advise going to see Emmy’s gigs.

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Written by Amelia &/or Delilah

June 23, 2011 at 3:01 pm