Gig Review: Emmy the Great @ Thekla 18/3/16
by Polly Hember
Singing about love, loss and swimming pools, Emmy the Great performed to a tightly-packed Thekla last Friday night. Songs from her accomplished and mature new album Second Love washed over the crowd, brimming with complex guitar, shuddering static, electric synth, a delicate voice and deftly crafted lyrics.
Support came in the form of Dems: an experimental trio of drums, keyboard and bass whose electric and ambient sound set the tone perfectly for things to come. The stage was scattered with potted plants, a shawl with printed elephants was draped over the keyboard stand and the tightly packed Thekla was pumped with smoke. For the main act, two projection screens were erected and fragmented shots of various windows, bridges, and a disconcerting hologram of Emmy herself played. That night, with the flickering phantasms on screen, and the air thick with heavy smoke, the well-known gig venue felt more like a fantastical dreamscape.
The hazy atmosphere opened the night up to a meditative and complex sound. Emmy the Great’s acoustic singer-songwriter origins are heavily indebted to the London anti-folk scene. Her debut album First Love in 2009 and Virtue in 2011 were albums of experience that spoke of broken relationships and the dissolution of an engagement. Tightly woven with myth, fairy-tales, allegory and illusion, her poetically penned lyrics were accompanied with acoustic guitar. Dense, meticulous and beautiful, her early folky days act as a point of pleasant comparison but also a point of exciting and ambiguous departure. Playing songs from her new album Second Love, Emmy the Great showcased a refined and mature sound.
Her song-writing remains witty and whimsical, but Thekla witnessed Emmy the Great launch herself into experimental ambiguity. Her lyrics were rich, yet notably abstract. Still speaking of love and emotion, her songs were notably less prosaic and gestured more to poetry. She often left pointed and ruminative lines drifting in the air, in a vast and complex soundscape full of synth, static and twangs of electric guitar. The production levels in Thekla saw a departure from fingerpicking airy acoustics and an evolution of sound take place. Emmy’s set was an engaging assortment of atmospheric electro and reverb, spurred on my ambient percussion with the tinkle of electric keyboard in the background. A step away from anti-folk, and a step towards the experimental, she manages to maintain a raw quality to her music, as her soft vocals melt together with the complex and layered material.
She admits in ‘Hyperlink’ that “Love is the answer in the end”. These are still deeply personal songs that manage to gesture to wider issues surrounding the unstable landscape of intimacy and modernity. Intricate, compelling and beautifully layered, her music tenderly explores what exactly intimacy is and where it can be found. She opened her set with ‘The Hypnotists Song’ which handles the matter of a broken heart, and manages to be both blunt and tender as she sings “bang, bang, smack, ouch”. ‘Social Halo’, a gem from her new album, anxiously examines the politics of texting in relationships, highlighting the digital ambivalence that dominates young relationships. ‘Swimming Pool’ was one of the highlights of the set, a shimmering cascade of tranquillity, describing the split image of someone diving into bright blue water, and the infatuation trapped in that sensuous moment. Emmy the Great speaks about texting, about possibilities, compassion and closeness in an age where the conception of intimacy itself is being called into question.
Alongside this slow and evocative excavation of human experience, her warm and bubbly personality also shone through. Her set was peppered with charming explanations and introductions to the songs, telling the audience about Hong Kong, childhood crushes and her love of Bliss magazine. She closed with old favourites ‘Paper Forest’ and ‘Easter Parade’, resulting in a fast-paced and feeling encore.
Emmy the Great has harnessed the raw energy of her anti-folk days and she showcased complex new material. Handling questions about love and emotion with nuance and subtlety, her beautifully crafted lyrics are set against an electronic backdrop, Emmy the Great truly lives up to her name. Make sure you catch her on the rest of her UK tour.
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Check out Dems, who are also touring the UK.