Review: Emmy The Great, “Virtue”

Emmy The Great Virtue
Image Courtesy of Emmy The Great

Last Year when we chatted to Emma-Lee Moss, the artist more commonly known as Emmy The Great, we got the feeling that her new album Virtue was not the album she expected to make as the followup to 2009’s acclaimed First Love. And quite rightly so – halfway through recording it Moss’ fiancé unexpectedly converted to Christianity, broke up with her and left England to become a missionary. “I had this really weird period where I was supposed to be getting married” Emmy told us at the time. “I was actually reading lots about theology because I didn’t understand what had happened”.

What was meant to be an album told completely from the point of view of various “characters”, both fictional and historical, once again took on the personal, almost cathartic resonance of her previous recordings. The “characters” are still there but one can’t help but read Moss’ circumstance into the lyrics and music throughout Virtue.

While First Love has always featured in high rotation on my iPod but I always cringed at its patchy production values. The lo-fi nature of many of the tracks added a certain indie charm to the record but do start to wear after a while. Luckily Virtue is a wonderfully put together record that compliments Emmy’s wonderful songwriting while still managing to sound slick and inspired.

Starting “Dinosaur Sex”, a child’s fever dream of the end of the world (“well dinosaur sex led to nothing/and maybe we will lead to nothing”) a somewhat sombre tone is set for the rest of the album. Emmy weaves most of the songs through a series of female protagonists, many of whom seem to have a desperate, almost trapped quality about their situations. However none of these women appear as victims, instead seen to be fighting against their situations and trying to make a better place for themselves. Familiar faces, from Juliet to Sleeping Beauty to Cassandra to Sylvia Plath, all play a part in helping Emmy come to terms with the massive changes that her life has gone through over the past few years.

The two tracks we’ve previously heard from Virtue, “A Woman, A Woman, A Century of Sleep” and “Iris”, are both standouts on the album. The former has a wonderful driving force that helps its protagonist rail against her situation – trapped, waiting for her prince charming to “save” her – and is almost a feminist rallying cry. The latter has the sweetness-with-a-darker-undercurrent of much of Emmy’s previous work and will be immediately recognisable to fans of First Love.

The split track, “Exit Nigh_Juliet’s Theme” is reminiscent of “Dylan” or “First Love” from the first album in the way that it rambles through the narrative changing tone and tempo throughout. I understand why Emmy has attached the two songs together, in that they are bound by the same story, but part of me wishes I could listen to “Juliet’s Theme” by itself – it’s stripped back vocals and guitar combination not really found anywhere else on the album.

The one song that directly addresses the breakdown of Emmy’s relationship, “Trellick Tower”, is simply heart-wrenching. The emotional honesty of the song’s lyrics (“you’ve propelled yourself into the arms of God and Christ and all the saints now/I’ve been walking through our house separation made it sacred”) is what I love most about Emmy the Great’s music and it’s wonderful to see it on display here. The first time I listened to Virtue (and many times since) the one track I had to repeat again and again was “Trellick Tower” – it’s simply gorgeous.

Virtue is a wonderfully put together album with layers upon layers of fine musicianship – from harps and choirs, adding the religious overtones, to the well placed percussion and orchestral elements. Emmy’s long time collaborator Euan Hinshelwood and producer Gareth Jones give the album a depth and timbre that is worthy of her wonderful songwriting. Virtue could well be the album that sees Emmy the Great live up to the hype that has surrounded her for years now – an absolute gem.

Virtue is available now in Australia on iTunes. Watch the clip for “Iris” below:

1 Comment

  1. September 16, 2011 at 10:15

    […] on Stereogum and is the latest single taken from Emmy’s insanely good album Virtue (which we reviewed here). Watch the Lucy Needs directed video for “Paper Forest (In the Afterglow of Rapture)” […]

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