“If character equates to fate / then I’m not Great”, sings Emmy the Great, somewhat counterintuitively, on new album Virtue. Hers is a challenging choice of showbiz moniker – part twee whimsy, part psychopathic autocrat – but that notwithstanding, I’m still not entirely sure what she means.
The record is strewn with lovely couplets, none more appealing than the early, “Cranes are lifting cargo to the sea / They are the size the dinosaurs would be”, which cues up the singer-songwriter’s first thesis. ‘Dinosaur Sex’ ranks as one of the more unlikely opening track titles you’re likely to encounter but, as coyly gratuitous as it seems, there is nothing mischievous or immature about the album. On track one, this idea frames an apocalyptic vision where power stations shiver and weep and skin peels off in sheets. “And dinosaur sex led to nothing / And maybe I will lead to nothing”, the vocal deadpans, a common epiphany not often couched in terms of prehistoric procreation. It’s a point well made, although – not being pedantic (or a palaeontologist) – surely a little unfair: did dinosaur sex not lead to small dinosaurs? It was their other strategies to stave off extinction (or lack thereof) that were of no consequence in the fiery face of meteorsaurus.
Anyway. Artfully articulate without being pretentious or wordy, this is for the most part a darker, slower, sombre sophomore album that is personal and at times very intimate, the influence of a broken engagement hanging heavy. Emmy (Emma-Lee Moss in real life) and her partner split after his religious awakening (of which more later). The evolution in tone is matched by sometimes sparser, sometimes sweeping orchestration (the domain of long-term collaborator Euan Hinshelwood) that is markedly less folky and often overshadowed by the ravishing singing at the centre. When the rhythm chugs and the bassline scuds, or the choir sing out, it can almost feel intrusive.
It isn’t always easy to follow the lyrics, which draw on an array of allegorical allusions to fairy-tale themes. A surfeit of images and ideas come quickly, in clauses that criss-cross through the lines and, fragmented, find the ear, all in all constituting an impressive show of faith in the listener’s concentration. On ‘Cassandra’, name-dropping Apollo’s pathetic prophetic psychic sidekick from Greek mythology, I’m struck by the words, “But still the world turns upon its axis / And we make circles so we can match it”, which could of course mean everything or nothing. The preceding song, ‘Paper Forest (in the Afterglow of Rapture)’, which suggests a fear of forgetting, offers possibly applicable lines: “I have to write down almost everything I see / So that the record does obscure the thing the record used to be”. The thing is, although each track deserves to spark at least an essay’s a worth of literary criticism, the upshot is a set of songs I admire more than enjoy.
However, album closer ‘Trellick Tower’ is a masterpiece: devastatingly sublime and completely brilliant. One consecrated union blown apart by another; the song unwraps the secularly sacred in an open love letter, a prayer of loss and longing, a simple piano ballad of allegory and open-hearted honesty that is just very moving: “I’m a relic of a love gone by / Kneeling to address the sky / I’ll keep praying till the binds untie / Praying but I don’t know why.” It’s divinely written and performed and thoroughly eclipses the rest of the record, for all the references, reveries and erudite musings that went before.
Virtue is an ambitious album that asks more than it answers but stays engaging from the fragile tune-up on ‘Dinosaur Sex’ to the enthralling last bars of ‘Trellick Tower’. The writing is tight, with lyrical turns of phrase flashing and flickering over well-produced tunes that help to sustain challenging narratives. Brooding but bold and completely assured, this is a worthy and ultimately rewarding second release that promises more for the future.