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Virtue is Emmy the Great's second full length album, released June 2011. The album was partially written when Emma Lee Moss (Emmy's real name) was engaged, and partly after her atheist fiancé left her for the church. Her decision to play gigs in churches is either her laughing at the situation, or it's rather masochistic. Perhaps it's both. I was fortunate enough to see her play live in a chapel in Salford earlier this month. The themes of the album coupled with Emmy's celestial singing really suited the spiritual surroundings. The biblical and fairy-tale themes are a way of detaching herself almost from her experiences, careful not to make it too personal, although Emmy's vulnerability comes through often.
Biblical themes mix with fairy tales throughout the album. These themes coupled with Emmy's lyrics paint vivid pictures, her song writing is incredibly imaginative and descriptive and she has a talent for making something perceived as ugly seem beautiful. In Emmy's version of these fairy tales however, the good and virtuous don't always succeed, there isn't always a happily ever after. The theme of being lost and searching for something greater runs through Virtue too. It's a very cohesive album, more so than her debut, First Love. Emmy seems more confident in her approach, and where she wants to take her music, and it's more personal feeling lets you connect to her and the album more. Emmy also seems to be keen to take herself in different directions musically, she experiments more with Virtue. It doesn't always succeed, but it's always interesting.
Dinosaur Sex - The title is certainly attention grabbing for the opening song! But while the title suggests the song is silly and flippant, it's actually a very pertinent song about the end of the world as we know it. The song opens with discordant sounds, immediately sounding unsettling, before the echoes remind you of a vast, open space. While I'm not too keen on this song musically, lyrically it's oddly beautiful; 'Power stations shiver then it weeps/ bleeds into the fields then kills the wheat', despite Emmy singing of things that are ugly. 'Dinosaur sex led to nothing', suggests that the human race could easily go the way of the Dodo. Lyrically, Emmy's at her best here, creating such vivid images with a few choice words; 'Skin is peeling off us in sheets' and anthropomorphising ugly objects, turning them into something tragic. Bit of advice, though - I wouldn't recommend saying 'Dinosaur sex is brilliant' because it will give you a few odd looks.
A Woman, A Woman, A Century Of Sleep - The narrator in this song is feeling trapped in a relationship, and just watching life pass her by; 'And all my days are/ fading into leaves/ walls you made are us/ but I don't want to be/ the queen/ in a century of sleep'. The imagery that Emmy's lyrics conjure up is exquisite; 'they have aerials they feed from me/ and they grow and grow and grow now I am/ shifting into greenery now the pipes are running bone and you might/ think I was a house but I am a woman, a woman'. With Emmy's lyrics, the insistent pounding of the melody and the otherworldly choir, A Century of Sleep is easily one of Emmy's best songs and one of my favourites of hers, not just of the album. Emmy can make plants sound sinister, and a house oppressive, and with the choir reaching an eerie crescendo, you don't know whether to tap your feet or be a bit frightened.
Iris - One of the more upbeat songs on the album, Iris is the first single from Virtue. Again, it continues with one of the main themes of the album; feeling unsatisfied with your lot. It's one of the most accessible songs on the album, so it's easy to see why it's chosen for the first single. It's as cheerful as the album gets, and oddly it's one of my least favourites. There's nothing wrong with it musically or lyrically; it's a fine song indeed but there's something very familiar about it, I have the feeling I've heard it before and one of the appeals of Emmy's music is its distinctiveness.
Paper Forest (In the Afterglow of Rapture) - Here the narrator has everything she thinks she could want, and is still feeling unhappy, lost. The repeat of 'But you're blessed' is almost as though the narrator is convincing herself that she should be happy. Emmy's breathy delivery suggests the narrator is running, away from something, or toward something is up to your interpretation. I know I'm banging on about the lyrics but it would be remiss of me not to mention just how blooming brilliant they are on this track; 'You write so much, you look up and you wrote yourself behind,/ And you're standing in a labyrinth of paper and the map has been erased', and how utterly heart-breaking they are too; 'standing in the afterglow of rapture, but there is no rapture left' Emmy's voice sends shivers down the spine and here it's displayed at its best.
Cassandra - Emmy's searching for meaning in life, something that crops up a lot. 'What use is love if/ it always passes?' is a rather gloomy notion in a sweet song. After some Wiki-ing, I discovered Cassandra comes from Greek mythology. Cassandra was a woman who could predict the future, but was cursed so that no one would believe her warnings.
Creation - Yet again Emmy toys with the idea of life and if it ever has a point; 'He wants to know if there is a narrative' and there's a sense that people are doing things such as marriage because that's what they think they should do; 'and when the woman comes, he marries her'. The music invokes a feeling of wandering aimlessly through life, searching for meaning. The narrator is writing - creating someone's life and they have no power over their own future, over what will happen to them. But the creator also has no clue what to do with the character's they've created.
Sylvia - Another fast-paced song, it's probably my least favourite on the album. 'If this is life/ why does it feel like I am far away' This is one of the more abstract songs on the album, dealing with dreams, which as anyone who has had to listen to someone describe their dream knows, other people's dreams are boring. Sadly, so is this song.
Exit Night / Juliet's Theme - Again Emmy manages to make something perceived as ugly become beautiful. A song of two parts, it seems to end and then start again. It's a bit disjointed to me and doesn't quite work. The first part of the song is lovely, though.
North - This narrator wants to escape somewhere north. Judging from Emmy's comments about the 'North' being a paradise, I'm guessing it isn't Hull. The feeling of isolation is still present; 'I knock three times and beg them/ but they will not let me in'.
Trellick Tower - Emmy leaves the most personal song for last with Trellick Tower. It's the song that's the most obviously about her breakup, most noticeably personal. The biblical references still abound, but the lyrics are less abstract, easier to decipher, as though really delving into her heartbreak is too intense to dress it up in lyrics of fairy-tales; 'You've propelled yourself into the arms of God' It's certainly the most fragile song on the album. Musically it's also the most simplistic; it's just Emmy's singing and a lone piano. It's a beautifully powerful track, and an excellent way to end the album.
Best Tracks: A Woman, A Woman, A Century Of Sleep, Paper Forest (In the Afterglow of Rapture), Trellick Tower
A Woman, A Woman, A Century Of Sleep
Paper Forest (In the Afterglow of Rapture)
Exit Night/ Juliet's Theme
Price and Availability:- Some online retailers are currently waiting on stock, but it's for sale from Rough Trade, Banquet Records, Amazon, Play.com and HMV. Amazon are selling it for £8.52, and the mp3 download is £6.99. 7 Digital is selling the album for £5 which is an absolute bargain!
The version I have from Rough Trade has an extra disc of demos. I paid £10.99 to own the extra disc as well as the album. I would say this is more for completists and hardcore fans rather than new listeners.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Dinosaur Sex
2 A Woman, A Woman, A Century Of Sleep
4 Paper Forest (In The Afterglow Of Rapture)
8 Exit Night / Juliet's Theme
10 Trellick Towe