I discovered Emmy the Great courtesy of a review of her first album in the Daily Mail in February 2009, which definitely shows that it is useful for something. The reviewer raved on at length about the title track, First Love, which details exactly that – a four and a half minute odyssey of self discovery that climatically ends with the only (implied) orgasm I ever heard on a song apart from Je t’aime moi non plus (where, by all accounts, there was a real one). The track, which also managed brilliantly to parody Alexandra Burke’s X-Factor winning and 2008 Christmas chart topping rendition of Hallelujah along the way, was my candidate for song of the year then and is still the yardstick by which she is judged.
Emma- Lee Moss’ second album, Virtue (2011), was defined by the abrupt ending of a relationship when, bizarrely, her atheist fiancé apparently managed to find Jesus over the course of a weekend and decamped to a monastery. That would spoil anyone’s day I suppose and the shattering blow was ably chronicled on the track Trellick Tower, which references the iconic and allegorical northwest London residential tower block which she must have felt like throwing herself off. It showcased her wonderful way with words. “You propelled yourself into the arms of God…While I’m praying for this pain to heal, you’re waiting on Ascension.”
Both albums attracted widespread critical acclaim but, after Virtue, Moss took a break from composing her own albums to engage in a variety of activities that demonstrate her polymath nature, including rock music journalism and blogging (I’m not sure what she’d make of this, fingers crossed she doesn’t see it!), feature writing on cultural issues, philosophising, political activism (I’m surprised she didn’t actually man the barriers in her native Hong Kong), as well as part-composing the score for the 2013 film Austenland, for which she was Oscar-nominated.
These activities took her away from her West London home to travel Asia and the US widely, with spells in both California and New York and according to her comments about her forthcoming EP ‘S’ (to be released on 26 January on Bella Union) it is the itinerant nature of her recent life and the way in which both she and the world have changed so quickly that influenced the four songs on it. She describes the EP as her trying to engage with the outside world, which she perceives to be “incredibly bright and technologically breathtaking” instead of looking inwardly as she did previously. I suppose you could suggest she joins the queue of come-out, join-the-real- world artists but at least she’s upfront about it right from the start.
The first track, Swimming Pool, includes a backing vocal contribution from Wild Beasts’ Tom Fleming and is a departure from her usually intricate lyrical weave. Her words are far more blunt and to the point. Gone are brain flummoxers like “Now you write because you love him, now you write because he’s kind. You write so much, you look up and you wrote yourself behind. And you’re standing in a labyrinth of paper and the map has been erased” (from Paper Forest, on the Virtue album). Labyrinthine indeed.
Now, instead we hear, “It’s so clean, and so, so new, I reach out and touch you but you jump in to, your blue swimming pool.”
The song is also delivered an octave or so lower than normal, giving her, as others have pointed out, a slightly Lana del Rey feel. Her voice is certainly stronger here; she is aware of its frailties having once famously said she thought she sounded like Roger Moore giving a lecture on his own importance before she heard herself singing and realised the noise coming out of mouth was more like that of a baby puking.
What is she singing about on Swimming Pool? Lord knows. She appears to be ruminating on a new love in her life she’s discovered since the heavenly ascent of the previous one (that’s not to mention a reported dalliance with Tim Wheeler of Ash along the way since then). She sings that she didn’t know how to be alive before meeting him. (I’m just assuming it’s a him of course).
But she also tells us what she really, really wants: “Hey Rich kid. I’m here. I want it. The sunshine, your tan line, the good times, and your blue swimming pool.” Does she really, or is this just another of the wry observations at which she excels; one that pokes fun at the southern Californian lifestyle that she experienced while working on Austenland?
While the lyrics are relatively minimalistic the sound is deeper and richer than we’ve had from someone who is essentially an acoustic guitar strumming ‘anti-folk’ artist at heart, with multiple but subtle guitar sounds, intricate synths, and a heavenly chorus. You get the feeling that someone like Trevor Horn or Phil Spector (if I can mention him) opened her eyes to the possibilities.
And hand in hand with the new sound comes a new look. But at the end of the day it is still the instantly recognisable Emmy the Great we know and love.
The other EP tracks are titled: Social Halo; Solar Panels; and Somerset [I Can’t Get Over]. At least we know what the ‘S’ means.
Now the really good news. Emma-Lee offers us the opportunity to attend what is the EP pre-launch date gig, at the Deaf Institute on 23 January. (Her London date is the day after the launch as it should be. She clearly understands the natural order of things).
She likes Manchester and the Institute suits her well (she’s also played Night and Day, the Ruby Lounge and the Sacred Trinity Church in Salford). She refers to the city as her second home since First Love was recorded at The Earlies’ studios in northeast Lancashire and some of her early ‘breakthrough’ gigs were here, as they have been for so many artists. If you haven’t seen her before she’s worth every penny. Quite apart from the music she’s articulate, fiercely intelligent, sharp, observant and funny enough to moonlight as a stand-up comic if she chose to. In fact, much as I like the Institute, I’m hoping demand will be sufficient to upscale her to the larger venue she deserves and that she can garner more commercial appreciation and success accordingly.
Emma-Lee Moss is first and foremost a poet who also has the knack of picking out a fine tune to go with her fine words. With this EP the woman the Guardian described as “one of the boldest young writers in pop” seems to be shifting slightly more mainstream. You know, I can even see Swimming Pool popping up on Ken Bruce’s playlist on Radio 2. But at the same time she doesn’t appear to have sacrificed her uniqueness.
A few other tasters:
Eastern Maria (from ‘Virtue’)
Trellick Tower (Virtue – filmed at the Trades Club, Hebden Bridge)
Paper Forest [In the Afterglow of Rapture] (Virtue)
And last, but not least, First Love. (A purposefully ironic video, methinks).
David J Bentley ©2014