Emmy the Great’s ‘Second Love’ is Emma-Lee Moss plus a lot of synthesisers and computers. This is a bit of a change from ‘Virtue’ (2011) and her debut, ‘First Love’ (2009), which relied more on the usual guitar-bass-drum instrumentation of new-folk, even using fiddles in the early days. Since ‘Virtue’, she has worked on the lovable mock-rock ‘This Is Christmas’ album with Tim Wheeler from Ash, taking it on the road for festive gigs. Now she offers ‘Second Love’, which is less wordy and more electronic than anything she’s done so far.
Her new direction was signposted by the Los Angeles-influenced ‘Swimming Pool’ a couple of years ago, which opens the new album. It uses sequencer-style drums, thrumming synths, sampled harps and guitars, chanting and a pleasingly strange disembodied backing vocal from Tom Fleming of Wild Beasts. “Sunshine, your tan line, the good time” conjure up images of the LA life of a “rich kid” and their “blue swimming pool”, but it’s not entirely clear whether she approves. This ambivalence is the album’s foundation, giving it a strength through lyrical sparseness.
An understated delivery makes the lilting, bass-heavy electro-pop of ‘Less Than Three’ pure; “Weak, like a heartbeat/slow, like a hearbeat”, she sings, and this idea of electronic percussion accompanying lyrics of love like a beating heart occurs frequently on ‘Second Love’. ’Algorithm’ and ‘Hyperlink’ refer to familiar musical genres such as ’50s and ’60s pop and film music, or soulful Motown backing vocals, but with a fresh twist. “Love is the answer, oh but I’m a comfortable liar”, according to ‘Hyperlink’, where it’s never clear how much irony is involved.
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The playful and ingenuous ‘Constantly’ employs a simple arpeggio and the album’s trademark lyrical ambivalence: “I can’t do this alone, the aching comes and goes.” Its references to a “laptop… glowing” in the wee hours at the end of a relationship highlight one of the album’s themes — technology, perhaps as a digital dystopian obstacle to true love. Sampled looping voices add a sense of unease to ‘Social Halo’, about estrangement from a friend, or maybe lover, and their sardonic circle of mates: “You held me and then you, you let go”.
A couple of tracks later, ‘Dance w Me’ also uses strange sampled conversation in the background and overdubbed lyrics to create an unsettled vibe. Is it a love song, a breakup song, a make-up song? Whatever, it’s a touching highlight: “You can’t exist without fighting me, oh I respect my enemy, dance with me, cos you should get what you want tonight”. In between, ’Never Go Home’ is a pop song that subverts itself. In another nod to pop, ‘Phoenixes’ has a break that sounds like Taylor Swift when she’s turning her country roots into stadium filling narrative, and laughs at youthful ways: “Like we were 17… when we first met”.
‘Shadowlands’ uses rich Rickenbacker resembling guitar with a ’50s feel, and has a great lyric about genteel addiction: “Drink caffeine until I’m glitchy and nervous”. ‘Part Of Me” slowly builds, lifted by a keyboard riff, shimmering cymbals and overdubbed vocals, with the refrain of “you are a part of me” genuinely affecting. ‘Lost In You’ ends the album with a piano-voice tour de force reminiscent of Lana Del Rey: “Out there in the distance, you look like a north star, oh somehow lead me to the next place”.
Deliberate and thoughtful production make each song on ‘Second Love’ varied, as the musical style forever changes. Instruments, chiming sounds, percussion, electronics and layer on layer of voices come in and out in gentle waves. And love — in all its confusion — is never absent.
‘Second Love’ is out now via Bella Union
This Emmy the Great article was written by Ian Bourne, GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Stephen Butchard.