Emma Breaks the Law; Returning Home to Defy the Pigeon-holers
A songwriter usually has one or two instruments to discipline the muses. These days, this is a chronic difficulty as the pigeon hole “singer/songwriter” is stuffed so that even the carcasses cannot be removed. By the time Emma Pollock was able to take the deep breath needed to leave the chrysalis of a band in the wake of the Delgados’ unfortunate surrender, she had already clearly seen that to go solo was dangerous. The experience gave her the foresight to know that the personality cultism of “singer/songerwriterdom” would be her demise. This is particularly true when one juxtaposes the new release with her 2007 debut, Watch the Fireworks. Even after the side road to 4AD Records for that project led her back to the cocoon with her former bandmates’ label and studio, the resolve to write songs and present them with their best foot forward has only strengthened.
The experience of listening to Pollock’s songs is to allow the settling of initially apparent contradictions. In front of nuanced, extended chords, these pulled from the confines of (mostly) pianos, there is a vocal which delivers with unaffected delivery (which makes the MySpace description of “melodramatic” something of a curiosity). Hers can be a presentation sharp and precise, languid, and even slightly elliptical. On the riveting opening track “Hug the Harbour”, the incisive lyric sometimes borders into somewhat strait-jacketed couplets, letting meter hold sway over lyrical breadth. This potential weakness, here as elsewhere on the album, is redeemed as the melody and arrangements allow space for the listener to think through the whole of the moment. There is no small joy, then, to listening through an otherwise suspiciously symmetrical thought in the chorus for “I Could be a Saint”: “How are you gonna break my heart / When you never even make my day?”
An arresting centrepiece on this new work is “House on the Hill”, which is a true gift to the listener. The frenetically episodic verses evaporate in the chorus’ sparse, slower resolution; the memories and the nostalgic pain are packaged so purely as to suggest that poetry’s claim to the elegiac is rendered obsolete by the power of song. A likely favourite which shows Pollock’s rarely unerring ability to present with the rare gestalt to inoculate against any “singer/songwriter” dismissal is her “Red Amber Green”, which plays on what could be a predictable arrangement with daring major/minor experiments in the later choruses.
Pollock is not the meandering search for meaning in expressionist analysis characterized so much these days. These are considered tunes. It is also the happiest of circumstances for listeners who wish more of the same without it being the same. The palette and paints are larger and more plentiful, but it is a work in the same exhibition as Watch the Fireworks. Having support from her former bandmates may no longer be a cocoon, but is clearly a creative home from which she has reached out with great success. This is true right down to Chemikal Underground’s own in-house studio Cloud 19, where the record was recorded over the course of a year. The ability to have such a facility is this reviewer’s only real complaint, as the final mastering has suffered despite what was clearly a finely-crafted recording under the guidance of producer David Fridmann. However, The Law of Large Numbers is easily strong enough to overcome this one technical complaint, which will not even register with most of us inured to poor mastering by the large numbers of it. Emma Pollock is back home among friends with independence and creativity. Singer and songwriter she is, but this album is thankfully greater than the sum of those parts.