When I first saw Emeralds play live at Unsound back in 2010 my friends and I couldn’t help but notice their performance dynamics. On the right you had the stoic keyboardist, in the middle the pretty boy guitarist with his expressive licks and hair flicking and, most amusingly, on the left, with his back turned to us, the enthusiastic fist pumping of John Elliot lurching at his synthesisers. Afterwards we joked about how we weren’t really sure what he was pumping his fists to. As on record, the pulsating force of Emeralds was hard to lock down, the three instrumentalists doing their own thing while simultaneously locked into a spellingbinding, psychedelic haze.
It was a sometimes perfect reflection of what went on on record. 2010’s Does It Look Like I’m Here? was a pretty special (I marked it down as my favourite long player of that year) mesh of throbbing drones, euphoric riffing and bristling synthesizer lines and it was always gonna be difficult to match. It’s follow up has been earmarked as one of my most anticipated releases of the year. In the last while the twitterati has been clambering over itself to talk about it, yet I didn’t really know that I was to expect something quite so different to what had come before.
I should note that it’s not totally different to the Emeralds of before. You can still easily tell it’s them. The pacey 8-bit-esque melodies are still there and McGuire’s guitar playing is as easily recognisable as before. But this time around they have very much smoothed out the rough edges – if rough is even the right word, I’m not so sure it is. The opening moment of Before Your Eyes is pure Emeralds, a dream like wash of ephemeral melodies and McGuire’s lilting guitar before suddenly the song crashes into big riffs and machine gun percussion. That’s the first initial shock, percussion; something previously alien to the trio. What is nearly more surprising is just how direct that initial explosion is, and it very much sets us up for the remainder of the album. Where before they could slowly drag you in with their intertwining sounds, here they thump you over the head. It sounds as lush as you would expect from them but it’s directness was a little off putting for me.
In case we thought that dash of percussion was an anomaly, Adrenochrome kicks off straight away with a solid electro pattern and it takes a while for the rest of the song to catch up; trundling along quite nicely with everything else floating in the background before – as on the opener – McGuire’s soloing takes center stage. It’s nearly as if they are in awe of the drums or want us to really notice that it’s there. As with the opener, melodically it can’t really be faulted. It’s pristine sounding and wonderfully beatific but, once again, it’s lack of playfulness leaves me a tiny bit cold. Through & Through is a much more relaxed ambient number, where the guys soundtrack a sunrise straight out of a Michael Mann film, alternately warm and cool. Much has been said already about this new refined cleanliness yet here you can see it as a logical progression from what they’ve done before
Everything Is Inverted is possibly the song that connects the dots between old and new Emeralds the most. The kick that fades in works as the pulse of the song that they would usually conjur up via their synths but those twirling 8-bit melodies of before are intact and – yes, you have noticed a pattern emerging – slowly but surely McGuire’s guitar slowly arrives in to take centre stage and take the song into it’s heady 2nd half while percussion drops in to add to the flurry of longing chimes. It’s here that I’ll take you back to my initial comment about Elliot’s fist pumping. Where before we wondered what he was punching the sky to, it’s right here in front of our eyes (ears?) now. One could say the skyscraping epic-ness of the track is cheesy as hell but really, these 80s FM radio and Americana sounds were present before, it’s just now they take centre stage.
It’s an interesting situation the trio have landed themselves in. People are going to love this album and I can see where they are coming from with what they have done. The sound they mined previously has become omnipresent in the last few years and no one wants to see such an exciting act sit on their laurels either. Why would you? I’m just surprised that while they decided to clean up the sounds so much that they also cleaned up how they compose their music. After the gloomy break of the wonderfully titled The Loser Keeps America Clean, the title track is another bright rush of skipping percussion and euphoric assonance before the album closes on the sombre note of Search For Me In The Wasteland, again lilting synth lines touchingly wash over McGuire’s reverbered guitar playing, though this time more reflective than rumbustious. It’s a suitably smooth ending to a very smooth album.
As I said at the top of the last paragraph, people are going to love this album. It’s accessible, full of brilliant, catchy melodies and it certainly has heart, something that marks out Emeralds from much of their ouvre. It’s frictionless production values haven’t dulled that at all. But it is also going to have it’s detractors. And I am one of them. It’s not totally because it’s “cheesy” or whatever (regular readers should know at this stage that smooth 80s sounds are more than fine in my book), I just don’t think it’s as interesting as what they’ve done in the past. I simply can’t get lost in it’s collage of sounds as I have before, and that is what I loved about Does It Look Like I’m Here? (I can’t help but directly compare it to their last album. It was just so good, yknow?) It would take me away completely from my surroundings, I got (and still do) totally lost in their dreamlike miasma and this more streamlined effort is lacking that. One could argue that the addition of drums has tied them down to a more direct rhythmic course and as they enter a new phase of their sound they are finding their way again. You could mark this as an odd statement as in one way this album is as complete a project as they have done and maybe they are just done with their more psychedelic leanings. I hope not. Even though this album barely exists I’m actually more intrigued to see where they go next. I think it is possible to bring together their previous stylings with this new sound and that really, really excites me.
I remember when Games appeared with their long player I totally lost interest in how they had contoured everything that made “What People Play” so much fun. It isn’t quite the case this time around, Emeralds are still trying to strike themselves out from everything else around, it’s not just a pointless pastiche of sounds we are familiar with. This effort just plays it too straight for my liking, but I certainly won’t give up hope just yet.