New friends help you figure out what you actually like. Unlike those longtime companions who you can communicate with through nothing but grunts and glances, new friends have a script. What do you do? What do you like? What do you listen to?
I was surprised by one of my answers a couple weeks ago.
“What kind of music do you like?” asked New Friend X.
“Mary Chapin Carpenter.”
Huh? I backtracked. “Um, folk. Singer songwriters. Laura Veirs.”
After several months on a hearty K Records fueled kick, interspersed with a handful of decidedly non-folk-songwriter acts, this answer tumbled out of my momentarily possessed mouth and revealed the truth: I missed them. Old favorites like Patty Griffith and Mary Chapin Carpenter, semi-old discoveries like Laura Veirs and Missy Higgins, I missed the whole songwriting gang. I was a little tired of deep monotone Calvin Johnson, tired of trying to figure out if I like solo David Byrne (I do? But I don’t? But I miss original David Byrne, could he time travel or change his suddenly way-smooth voice, pretty please?). I missed my first amorphous genre love, with its sweet voices and poetic lyrics, and I wanted it back.
Enter Emmy the Great: Genre-jumping, sharp tongued, and until recently, undiscovered by yours truly. I was hooked on the first listen, and I hope you are too.
“We Almost Had a Baby” on We Almost Had a Baby
This was the song that transfixed me. I’d been looking for it, that feeling, that stop-what-you’re-doing-and-play-it-again surge, and I found it in “We Almost Had a Baby.” Crisp, clear storytelling and a tone that reminded me of old country songs, which are referenced at the end when Emmy lays out a common country bass line— “Do you think of me when you are playing the one and five in four? Is country music all your life is for?”
It’s the saga of the almost baby, the accidental pregnancy that wasn’t, the emotional rollercoaster of imagined parenthood followed by the strange emotional hangover when it doesn’t happen. I love listening to this from a young, female perspective—the only other song I know that covers the travails of almost-babies is “It Was an Accident” by NRBQ, a light-hearted paean to having sex in cars and trying to dodge potential parental responsibilities.
“24” on First Love
Simple lyrics devastate, especially in breakup songs. Nothing knocks the wind out of me like Beck’s mournful chorus on “Lost Cause,” or Bob Dylan’s crackling voice singing “You just wasted my precious time/ Don’t think twice, it’s alright.” “24” belongs in the hall of fame of swift and biting goodbyes with its repeated lines “I’m sorry that you happened to me.” It’s a heartbreaking song about a snails pace breakup, where the life is slowly sucked out of their relationship until the day her lover watches a 24 hour TV marathon, and she turns 24. Together they’ve wasted time and promise. The years have passed and she says “You are still not Charles Bukowski, and I am not Diane Cluck.” Her tone conveys the acute exhaustion of feeling very old when you are very young, and the brisk hope of walking away from the person and the trappings of your life that are holding you down.
“Paper Forest—Afterglow of Rapture” on Virtue
The album Virtue was inspired by the end of Emmy’s engagement. This song showcases more of her vocal range than the other ones listed here, and has a darker, more tense tone, shown through a rapidly plucked guitar and dramatic shifts between high and low notes. It’s an experience I’ve never heard in a song—the dual realizations in the throes of heartbreak that you’ve survived, and that you need to catalog every moment of it before you forget. It’s not a fresh heartbreak song, or one that appears to be written long after the fact, when hindsight and reflection polishes the jagged lines. It’s right smack in the middle—halfway out, but not quite there yet. This is one of the most engaging parts of Emmy’s music—her ability to tell unique, relatable stories, ones that feel familiar based on experience, but new and unexpected in the context of a song.
“Iris” on Iris
“Iris” is sunny, retro pop, outfitted with breezy snare rolls and cheerful vocals. Emmy told Guardian UK that this song was an ode to a hybrid of several girls she knows, including herself, a gang of “Princess Impermanence”s who are dissatisfied with today, but looking forward to a brighter tomorrow. Her music bounces from genre to genre, tone to tone, never quite settling on one solid spot. It makes each album delightful and unexpected—one moment you’re in the midst of a folk song, minutes later there’s something bright and slightly twee streaming through your speakers. Throughout, there’s that sharp, witty songwriting and Emmy’s rich, ever-changing vocals.
“God of Loneliness” on God of Loneliness
Emmy’s voice, especially in the intro, sounds distinctly Natalie Merchant-esque, which gives the whole song a jaunty, 90’s alt radio feel that I love. If you told me this song was circa Lilith Fair, I would believe it wholeheartedly (and I would’ve blasted it on the Lilith Fair sampler I wore down to nothing in middle school). The twinkly, layered guitar and wind-chime-like sounds that shows up about a minute in grounds the song in the retro present—it has that sweet, dated pop sound that’s stayed popular over the past five years. The 90’s singer songwriter and modern retro pop sounds combine and create the infinitely catchy, shoulda-been-on-the-radio “God of Loneliness” which will spiral through your head all day after two listens.