Emmy the Great, Virtue

Written for Wears the Trousers 14.06.11

There always was more to Emma-Lee Moss than the flimsy whimsy of many of her contemporary dabblers in the rapidly evaporating pool of antifolk. This album confirms that she has greater things to offer. Virtue, written and recorded with Younghusband’s Euan Hinshelwood, released on the band’s own imprint, and financed through the Pledge Music fan-funding scheme, is a very different animal to her 2009 debut, First Love. It’s luxuriantly and smoothly produced, assured and accomplished, its ten tracks forming a cohesive whole in contrast to the debut’s collection of endearingly raw and disparate songs.

Moss’s own view is that “this album represents me a lot more personally” than First Love, and, in places, Virtue is intensely intimate, indelibly marked by her fiancé’s decision to break their engagement and take up a career as a missionary. Religion appropriately finds its way in as allegory and metaphor in songs like ‘North’ and ‘Paper Forest (In The Afterglow Of Rapture)’, but overall she universalises her own experiences rather than personalising them off-puttingly. Her recurring nods to the absurdity of individual perseverance in the face of the vast stretch of worlds and civilisations that have risen and fallen before ours displays the solid sense of perspective by which the heartfelt emotion here is firmly anchored. Lyrically, Moss remains mature and reflective, unflinchingly composed rather than messily emotive, but still able to unerringly articulate the depths of pain and hopelessness in which life is prone to land one.

There are echoes of her earlier work in the opening ebb and flow of ‘Dinosaur Sex’, a meditation on Moss’s persistent themes of comparative mortality, evolution and obsolescence, and in the sweetly bleak, insistent lilt of ‘Cassandra’, a song which makes wry resignation almost comforting. Second track ‘A Woman, A Woman, A Century Of Sleep’ is a more dramatic departure, dropping guitar lines like jangled nerves, a cascade of spine-shivering keys, and portentous, tumbling drumbeats underneath visions of domestic dissolution. The fluttery vocals and shuffling percussion of lead single ‘Iris’ soar into a breezy, billowing chorus, and ‘Paper Forest’ has a rush of lyrical wisdom that ripples and swells like waves breaking on a shore. ‘Trellick Tower’ is another surprise, its London tower block setting seeing Moss draw inspiration from the city rather than her more familiar pastoral landscapes. It’s the album’s most overtly personal song, exploring love and religion over a delicate piano-led backing that ends things on a questioning but resilient and hopeful note.

On Virtue, Moss’s music measures up to her reliable mainstay of gently self-deprecating and sharply cerebral lyrics. The album even has moments which bear unlikely comparison to the lush melancholy of mid-period Radiohead and Kate Bush’s anatomising of feminine psychology. This is a record dealing in harsh blows struck softly, in which Moss has managed to channel loss into pitch-perfect pop songs brimming with instantly memorable words and melodies, swathed in a voice of tremulous strength and purity.

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