Emmy the Great - Virtue
I very much see my top two albums as a pair. They came out within a week of each other in June and helped immensely to get me through some of the worst weeks of my year immediately at the same time. They were by the two singers who I've seen more than any others over the last couple of years and the albums are almost mirror images of each other. Both are open hearted intimate and make no secret of their autobiographical elements, but one is celebratory and one mournful, one marking the beginning and one the end of serious, marriage-bound relationships. They even both have a superb second track and single which is superficially about a house but really about the relationship.
Virtue is the end album of the pair and one which I'm very close to in probably unprecedented ways. I've exchanged more words with Emma-Lee Moss than any other musician (not that that's hard). I've seen her play more times than anyone else bar Elbow and Hard-Fi, and over a much shorter period of time than either. I've witnessed the songs on Virtue evolving before they were recorded and in fact, thanks to Pledgemusic, I heard several of them for the first time in my friend's front room, played to an audience of twelve people and a cat. It's maybe not surprising that I feel such a strong personal connection to the songs as a result, but on the other hand it's the strength of her songs which brought me into doing all of that in the first place. "Secret Circus" knocked me out before knowing anything about her apart from the name, which is probably worse than nothing. First Love was my favourite album of 2009.
Virtue shows all the same wit, insight, poetry as that album and is more complete and focused with it, musically as well as lyrically. Still playing indie-folk of a sort closer to Bright Eyes than to Laura Marling, every single song now sounds stripped to the bare essentials to make every moment count in service of the stories she's telling. Not to say that it's all acoustic all the way, but every additional touch is perfectly fitting - the yawning guitar echo in "Dinosaur Sex" that marks the creeping power of the uncertain and unknowable; the gothic choral backing vocals that convey the full horror of "A Woman, a Woman, a Century of Sleep" as her relationship turns suffocating and the very walls around her seem to be closing in.
The overall back story to the album is that it was written in the aftermath of a breakup triggered by Moss' fiancé finding God, and religious and fantastical imagery and considerations haunt the whole album. "Paper Forest (in the Afterglow of Rapture)" casts love as a blessing and the rapture of the title, but one that she's left unsure what to do with. Its words and sense of rueful deflation ring very true in capturing what happens when you spend so long believing something to be true, documenting and analysing and reaffirming it, that you can’t find your way back to actually living in and feeling the moment as it happens. "Creation" plays powerfully with the idea of becoming the author and God of your own story, or of someone else's and the weight of responsibility that results.
The album ends with "Trellick Tower", her saddest and best song yet. It lays everything as bare and as clear as can be, music reduced to a few piano notes which sound afraid to intrude on its grief. Her lover is now cast as a departed saint, as unreachable as the top of the brutalist block of flats from which the song takes its name. She prays in vain to a voice which he hears and she can't, everything around her and eventually herself turned into lifeless relics of something now gone forever, all greeted with a numb acceptance, like she's just setting out the facts but in the only language able do them justice. It's another fairly audacious idea but like all of Virtue it really, really works.