Perhaps more than any other grand album-making tradition, the breakup record is the one that earns the most empathy before it even exists. Critical acclaim tends to follow suit, or at least some adulation aimed at the bleeding heart on stage is damn near a given. For some, this is as brief as a song (Eminem, “Kim”), for others a full album (Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks) or two (Kanye West, 808s & Heartbreaks and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). But the common thread is that these are artists, well known for handing their emotions over to the public for consumption.
The producer album has been a thing for, I don’t know, two decades now? One could argue Phil Spector-helmed project belong to this class, but for the sake of argument I’m referring to a project billed under the producer’s name. Generally stunt-casting laden and showy, these albums are rarely of much consequence to the wider public. Producers are for the nerds who still buy vinyl or have been studiously maintaining their blogs even as that scene long ago settled into a status quo of tastemakers.
Emile Haynie’s We Fall is, on its surface, just another producer album, and could easily have settled into a rags-to-riches “started producing for Eminem’s lesser known friends and now I’m here” narrative and done just fine. This album released in February and it’s come and gone as swiftly as most producer-helmed albums tend to. I suppose I take all that time to wonder…why?
Brian Wilson as harmony vocalist is perhaps a bit crass in 2015, but aside from that this is a very well thought out album that happens to use other voices to convey a single person’s vision. Is it distracting to hear Emile and Nate Ruess (of fun., and the executive producer of this record) drop a totally fun.-sounding jam between a couple of songs featuring Sampha’s heart sinking into the maw of faithlessness and Colin Blunstone of the Zombies tisk-tisking a lost love? It would be, were Blunstone not playing the role of summer radio’s next big favorite (it’s not too late!). Is it giving Rufus Wainwright and Randy Newman opportunities to endear themselves to new audiences and in return giving them the best pop cuts they’ve been on in a while?
What I’ve found most enjoyable about this record is that it’s very much a breakup album from the perspective of one guy; allusions abound to a crazy woman, a tumult too expansive to ever corral and settle into. Still, Emile is also able to craft very good songs suited to each voice he invites as a substitute. The Lana Del Ray track perhaps plays a little close to what she’s known for, but so then does Newman’s song (easily the highlight, and something any Newman fan should seek out). Being a producer album, isn’t it a bit important to note that he satisfied such disparate artists’ needs so accurately?
We Fall is ultimately an album that appears ambitious on the surface but is really just a man using his primary talents to shake off the feeling of loss that can only come from a relationship that was doomed from the beginning. I admit to being in similar circumstances currently, and so the general gist of these songs is playing me the right way. I would have to also acquiesce that for the purpose of its existence, We Fall is disarmingly clean and grandiose for a hotel-room album about grief. In that sense it doesn’t drive home it’s thoughts, and can come off as trying to be two (or three, or four) things at once.
But this album is hook heavy and singular in purpose, which is fairly rare for a work of this type. A few small blurbs in print here or there and an expansive Grantland profile piece isn’t the most this album deserves. It’s always hard to forecast the next month of pop music let alone the entire year, but in a world where pop albums are consistently retreating back towards focusing on singles and pleasing all demographics with carefully diverse tracklistings, I think it’s safe to say that We Fall will be nothing if not one of the year’s more focused pop efforts. That focus sometimes gets in its own way, wanting to be a hit record where it would’ve been smarter to be a cult one, but it appears that may be its fate anyway.
After all, who’s ever heard of Emile Haynie?