[4 August 2011]
Emmy the Great’s first album, First Love, was my favorite discovery of 2009. Emma-Lee Moss, the London-based singer-songwriter behind the self-aggrandizing name, crafted a set of songs that looked at young heartbreak with a keen, if jaundiced, eye, her bitter sentiments sweetened by an irresistibly pure and expressive voice and sympathetic, largely acoustic accompaniment. What distinguished her most, though, were her gifts as a storyteller: her firm sense of time and place, character and detail. The car crash victim in “MIA”, the Jack Bauer-obsessed boyfriend in “24”, and the spurned lover in the title track all existed in their own vividly described realities.
When you fall in love with a new artist’s work as I did with Moss’s, the fear is that her next album won’t live up to the promise of the first one. But if anything, her follow-up effort, Virtue, is an even richer and more varied collection than her debut. It begins, literally, on a discordant note, followed by a wash of dissonant sounds, finally fading into the dirge-like melody of “Dinosaur Sex”. The images she describes here set the stage for what follows: a post-apocalyptic, Grimm Brothers-inspired world where the logic of dreams and fairy tales overtakes everyday reality. The song is all the more unsettling when you consider it was written and recorded many months before the recent earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant meltdown in Japan:
Power stations shiver, and they weep / Bleed onto the fields and kill the wheat / Sea of clouds is billowing in heat / Harvest comes and babies born with teeth / And skin is peeling off of us in sheets / I think I see the future when I sleep.
That haunting image of “babies born with teeth” recurs in what is perhaps the album’s best song, “Paper Forest (In the Afterglow of Rapture)”. Opening with a carefully picked acoustic guitar pattern and an intentionally enervated vocal, Moss looks back on a broken romance with sad wonder, afraid that even her memories will eventually desert her: “These days I have to write down almost every thought I’ve held / So scared I am becoming of forgetting how it felt”. But just as the song seems like it might bog down in self-pity, Moss’s voice rises in a soaring refrain, the melody and music joining in a moment of shimmering intensity: “But I’m blessed / Just to be, more or less / Standing in the afterglow of rapture with the words the rapture left.” The words themselves, she seems to be saying, are her redemption: the offspring of her failed relationship.
Troubled relationships provide the seed for several of Virtue’s most memorable songs. “A Woman, A Woman, A Century of Sleep” is a classic feminist parable, its narrator so subsumed in her role as partner that she seems to have lost her own identity: “While you are out making a life for us / I will stay and watch the days go past / And I’ll see how the plants advance / And they turn on what they know.” By the time the ghostly, chanting chorus comes in, she has realized she is in danger of becoming “the queen in a century of sleep”. But by song’s end, even as her “days are fading into leaves”, she reaffirms her subservience: “But I know that I believe / In whatever makes you pleased / In whatever brings you joy from me.” As the final note fades, the loss of self is palpable.
The lovely “Exit Night/Juliet’s Theme” deals with a different kind of loss, its narrator mourning “a country made of telegrams and tailcoats and nobody to grieve it”. This longing for a distant past (or not so distant, depending on your perspective) gives rise to some of Moss’s most poignant lyrics. “The sun is getting lower, then the highway marks the graves / And the taillights they circle like the roses of an infinite bouquet,” she sings, before moving into her disquieting refrain: “The wind is up, it’s out collecting lives / An exit night is coming through.” It’s a gently yearning view of death: “And oh, go to sleep / Tomorrow, the day will repeat / I will read ‘til your memories / Fly away.” As in “Paper Forest”, words and memories justify experience, however sad or final.
But no matter how bleak the stories Moss tells are, there is a brightness to her language and her luminous voice that keeps Virtue from ever becoming a heavy listen. Much credit is due to her principal band mate, guitarist Euan Hinshelwood, and producer Gareth Jones for creating sympathetic soundscapes that provide the songs with texture and color. Given the nearly unremitting darkness of the lyrics, the sound of much of the album is surprisingly light, even at times lush. This is especially true on Virtue’s penultimate song, “North”, where Moss contemplates distant paradise and her own inevitable exclusion against the album’s catchiest melody.
But it’s the last track, “Trellick Tower”, that is Virtue’s masterpiece: a gorgeous, piano-based ballad that tells the story of Moss’s broken engagement to a fiancé who had shared her atheism until finding God shortly before their wedding. The skyscraper of the title, a classic of the much-maligned Brutalist architectural style that favors function over form, becomes the ironic symbol of the lost contentment Moss felt in her relationship: “In the shade of Trellick Tower / In those days of living gently / Something holy used to love me / Something holy used to touch me,” she sings, pointedly finding her holiness in the physical, rather than spiritual, realm.
But by song’s end, even this devout nonbeliever finds herself praying for some form of resolution:
Now I’m a relic of a love gone by, / Kneeling to address the sky. / And I’ll keep praying ‘til the binds untie, / Praying but I don’t know why. / And I’ll keep praying ‘til the language dies / Praying ‘cause you’re so so high. / Can I / Spend my life trying to climb you?
It takes a brave artist to end an album on such a forlorn, hopeless note. Moss is certainly brave, but her greater gift is her ability to create such painstaking and beautiful art from the depths of her sadness. Let’s hope that if she finds happiness, she also finds a way to create equally dazzling art from that.