Trying to define the atmospheric qualities of a piece of music with words has certain inherent difficulties. Something that would be readily apparent in an instant to a listener takes many seconds to describe and the language inherently distorts what is depicted. Think about it. If I list iconic aural pieces such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper, Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”, can you think of a clear way of identifying the works to someone who has never heard them other than “classical”, “psychedelic” or “pop”? How they are different from other classical, psychedelic or pop pieces is far from clear.
So I am nervous about categorizing Emma Louise’s debut release, vs. Head vs. Heart as atmospheric, because the term itself (as well as the music it describes) is so ambiguously defined. Just as the atmosphere on Jupiter is different than the one on Earth, Louise’s may be not be similar to what you imagine. But atmospheric is the best word. Imagine her music as a kind of aural fog. You can sometimes find something familiar taking shape—a human voice; words; the snatch of a melody; a chugging sound or tinkling in the distance. But as soon as you think you are grounded, things shift. What once seems solid gets twisted and stretched; what once felt like a steady rhythm fades into an irregular beat; the sounds of various instruments come and go seemingly at random.
Consider a track like “17 Hours”. In a voice barely above a whisper, Louise sings words such as “sleep” and “flight” that pop up amidst phrases like “in your arms” and garbled syllables that seem like words. Is this about a reverie she had on a long flight between Louise’s native Australia and the United States? Maybe; the instrumentals have a dreamlike quality, but this is just speculative. The song may have nothing to do with this topic. Maybe it does not stand for any particular thing, just a mood or feeling.
Or the documentary-style language of a radio broadcast or tutorial on “Atlas Eyes” that speak of “rage and love”, “understand your emotions”, and “tear glands may produce tears “ between lyrics of “monsters”, “grandma”, and “memories”. What is going on may be best described emotionally instead of mentally, but hey, what would one expect from an album that posits that the head and heart compete? There is no winner between the two here, except for the listener, because one can get much pleasure listening to Louise’s creative compositions.
One might get lost on a dance beat or a lyric that takes one nowhere. My favorite line is “We drink too much and smoke too fast” from “Freedom”. It makes sense on paper, but in the song it is said half-backwards to imitate the consciousness of the person involved—re: we drink too fast and smoke too much. “This is Freedom” she ironically notes. Louise’s music itself works like a mind altering drug. Each cut takes the listener to different places that seem to crumble beneath one’s feet. The cuts seem unfinished in a way, but that is how the songs are meant to be. Louise does not offer closure as much as opening one up to new thoughts. When the songs are more static, as with “Boy”, there is still a strong element of something incomplete, as if Louise is afraid of saying or committing herself too much to any single frame of mind.
That’s fine, but after a while one tires of the atmospherics and gets sleepy. The record would be served well if Louise rocked out once in a while. After all, we are not just heads and hearts, we have bodies, too. Louise needs to take this into account by making her music more physical.