Emeralds are a band who have always steadfastly shun easy definition. Their last album Does It Look Like I’m Here was a blast of warm air in a dense ambient fug. Radiant electronic drone was interwoven with viscous synthesized collages and draped in post — rock experimentation, to create a work which was deservedly lauded by critics and landed near the top of many of 2010’s year-end lists.
The intervening years have not seen this Ohio trio (John Elliott, Mark McGuire and Steve Hauschildt) resting on their laurels as they tirelessly put out music in some form or another, all recording a variety of solo and side — projects, which have also been met with much critical favour. So it’s with a certain amount of sweaty-palmed anticipation, that that they have finally reunited to release their next album proper, Just to Feel Anything.
From the initial hum of washed out album opener “Before Your Eyes” with its unsurprising drum machine inflected crescendo, (think Fuck Buttons, with less grit, on a valium binge), it’s apparent that this record has a more polished feel than anything the Emeralds have produced to date. This straightforward sonic approach is only reinforced by “Adrenochrome” with its bubbling synths which are usurped and eventually overpowered by the sheer force of the Mark McGuire’s soaring guitar refrains. This conflict between synthesizers and guitars seems to be a pattern which at least the first half of this album falls into. Whereas McGuire’s guitar previously acted as a beacon, a guide through the densely layered drones and arpeggios, here it feels more self-indulgent and occasionally threatens to derail the music entirely, throwing it into the realm of holistic mixtape parody.
Whilst all of this cleaner approach may be a more immediately accessible to new listeners, it’s clear that those of us hoping for another stylistic paradigm shift, might feel a certain amount of blunt disappointment in all this safety. This comes to ahead somewhere between “Through and Through” with its soft lackadaisical drone and lamenting guitar which wouldn’t feel out of place on a ‘best of new age’ compilation disc and “Everything Is Inverted”, which hints towards the dark melodious melancholy of Joy Division, but ends up twisting into something akin to incidental music from The Equaliser.
However, a turning point comes in the form of “The Loser Keeps America Clean” which has a beautifully understated mournful ambiance, and marks a tonal shift in the album. A somber sorbet to cleanse the pallet which leads neatly into easily the two strongest efforts on on the album. “Just to Feel Anything” and closer “Search for Me”, both retain some of the album’s earlier rhythmical sheen, but allow for the low, churning guitars and dappled synthesizers to work in an exceptional synthesis, creating something which, whilst not wholly unfamiliar, feels more unexpected and ultimately, better for it. Sonic high points, they are as fine as anything they have ever produced and contain the album’s most transcendent and startling moments.
To write off Just to Feel Anything as a misfire would be a mistake, it’s full of highlights and tiny moments of golden perfection which will help it find a home in the hearts of fans and critics alike. It’s just that a glossy patina makes them hard to discern, acting as an emotional buffer to distance you from a real connection to the music. Innovation may have been forsaken for a redefinition in sound, but Emeralds are undeniably at the vanguard of a musical style that is definitively their own. Aural cartographers with a blank page, who ceaselessly draw and redraw their own boundaries, set the rules, create, define, develop and break them as they see fit… so who’s to say it’s wrong if they want to play safe?