Emmy the Great is interested in the space between people, and she sets her songs in a moment of action: leaning in, dancing apart, or walking away. She lays out her scenes with carefully chosen details, and on her indie pop debut, First Love, those details came in paragraphs. This was mostly a good thing; the woman born Emma-Lee Moss has a gift for maximalism, and her best early songs manage to immerse the listener in a rich and layered world. There were also excesses, times when baring her soul felt more like sharing her diary, and moments where she over-explained an idea, like someone who tells a joke and then goes on to tell you why it’s funny. At the time, she was only 24 years old.
These habits stayed with her for her sophomore effort, Virtue, written after her fiancé converted to Christianity and left her to become a missionary. There’s real growth there from First Love, especially regarding her musicianship, which became more dynamic. She leaned less on the acoustic guitar. She switched tempos and volumes, achieving more dramatic effects, like on “Paper Forest (In the Afterglow of Rapture)”, as pretty a piece of art pop as you’re likely to hear about utter emotional annihilation.
It’s been five years since that album, and in that time she has moved from London to Los Angeles and on to New York, still writing songs, but moonlighting as a music journalist for The Guardian and Vice. On Second Love, she returns as a different person. She’s more confident, done explaining herself. Moss’ dense paragraphs have been stripped down to just a few words, and the results are more poetry than prose.
Most of these 12 tracks are two-person scenes between Moss and a past, present, or prospective lover. While on First Love and Virtue she was preoccupied with intense, romantic relationships, sometimes on Second Love it’s unclear if she’s even met the guy. For album opener “Swimming Pool”, she seems to be ogling her neighbor, feeling an emotion somewhere between envy and ardor. The waves of woozy synths evoke a summer afternoon; you can practically smell the sunscreen.
There is some talk of real love, but the tone is decidedly ambiguous. Despite the typical love song trappings, the lyrics of “Algorithm” are troubled. “Pumping through my heart is an algorithm/ I hope it leads me to you,” she sings. Note that, here, love is a kind of program or formula driving her behavior. Her conscious mind would like to end up with a specific person, the “you” to whom the song is directed, but managing that is out of her control.
“Dance w. Me”, the high point of the album, is sad in a sexy kind of way — or maybe vice versa. The twinkling synths and stuttering drums set the stage for a dancehall battle. The first few lines form a complete world of characters and conflicts in less than thirty words: “You’re always asking me for it/ You’re always hustling me for it/ Dance with me/ Cause we’ll be alone by tomorrow/ And you should get what you want tonight.” It’s a potent cocktail of lust and disgust, mixed with the thrill of making a mistake.
All that said, not all of the songs are about romance. One of the best, “Phoenixes”, is a bittersweet memory, and it’s got some of the album’s snappiest writing. “We thought that weight loss was survival/ We thought that Vogue was French for Bible,” she reminisces to someone called “the screen-grab beauty queen.” One of the major themes of Second Love is the way in which technology has become a part of all relationships, like the photographs in “Phoenixes” or the phones in “Hyperlink”. Emmy’s not against this, exactly; she’s just observing. To this end, she puts a kaleidoscope of effects over her voice, which works because it’s a thin instrument: pretty, precise, but not very expressive. All the shimmers, echoes, and duplications put some weight behind her reedy voice.
The album falters a bit in the back third. “Shadowlawns” is more abstract and less immediate than the better tracks. It closes strongly, however, with “Part of Me Lost In You”. After spending most of her record with an arched eyebrow towards romance, this is one of the rare instances on Second Love where she feels as vulnerable as she did at 24. Emmy has said that calling herself “the Great” was a bit of a joke, but the way she’s going, she might earn her title.
Essential Tracks: “Dance w. Me”, “Phoenixes”, and “Part of Me Lost In You”