Lilac Everything by Emma Louise.Jul 12, 2020
Quick note that I’d recommend having a listen before reading as I pretty much ruin the very point I’m trying to make below! It’s a great album, which is the main point I should be making.
I love when music builds experiments into traditional pop structures without destroying those structures, even more so when it’s so well executed the experiment slides by almost undetected, and even more so when it slides by undetected and is clearly in every bar of the music once you realise.
Doing this is a lot harder than the majority of music described as “experimental music” which isn’t experimental at all but noisemaking using decades-old techniques. It’s also pretty difficult to come up with a new experiment in music making, so why not take old experiments and use their results to make something beautiful to listen to?
Lilac Everything by Emma Louise is one of my favourite albums of the last few years. I go back to it all the time and have loved it since the week it was released. Its wonderful songs are some of the best in a very crowded “you may also like” arena (Florence, Adele, Feist…, thanks algorithm). But I’d have probably never heard of it or her if I weren’t intrigued by its framing effect after reading about it; an idea so simple, all-encompassing and brilliantly executed you possibly wouldn’t notice it at all until it was pointed out.
Upon release her old fans, however, noticed it straight away. Some promptly flooded YouTube and more with disgusted comments, all along the line of “What happened to your beautiful voice?”.
What had she done? Autotune? Changing style? Actually destroyed her voice? Released an instrumental album? No, she asked her producer to downtune the singing voice that had made her successful and loved, and nicknamed the result “Joseph”. “For a whole album?” you shudder. Yes. Sounds like an awful gimmick? No, it turns out it sounds like a beautiful collection of pop songs sung by a rich, earthly-sounding voice.
Some of my favourite musical moments are those with this sort of vocal manipulation. Kanye West talking to different versions of himself in a disorientating pitch-shift or suddenly making you realise a synth part was singing, The Avalanches mixing a “Since I Met You” sample so it sounds like “Since I Left You” so well they named their album after it, Laurie Anderson having groundbreaking fun with pitch shifting and vocoders, Annette Peacock merging her voice with a Moog Synthesesier until it explodes like nothing else, Julianna Barwick layering and layering and layering until all her listeners are in heaven…
But what’s unusual here is that while the above are all obvious and the main musical focus at that point, Emma Louise / Joseph just sings. The songs would work well without it (and were recorded as such) but with the shift become warm, superbly delivered and something subtly superhuman rather than inhuman.
A closer parallel is the popular “slowed & reverb” scene where famous pieces of RnB and Hip-Hop get this treatment; but where that often sounds melancholic and hazy, this sounds real and conveys the brilliant songs’ emotions so well because of it. A closer parallel might be the (probably false) argument that Robert Johnson was recorded at the wrong pitch by accident, or the gender-switching YouTube experiments playing with famous artists’ tracks. But whether it’s by accident (/playful experiment), engineering skill, singing ability, the songs themselves or, most probably, all of those, I’ve never heard the technique used so effectively and naturally.
One could go into over-analysis (please do!) of what this means for gender (Prince playing with pitch and gender on If I Was Your Girlfriend comes to mind), and identity (thoughts probably going around Emma Louise’s head when she made this choice and named it), but I find it so non-distracting and the music so accessible these thoughts are secondary. Oh, and any allegations that she’s cheating by doing this are ridiculous.
Some of those old fans have pitched-up the record to get back her “real voice”, I’ve put on some of her old albums out of curiosity and was surprised the other way round. But this is her best album, and one that I’m sad that more people didn’t discover at the time. Coming back to YouTube today to read a huge load of positive comments on the same songs from people who have discovered her later, or grown to get why it’s great, is lovely.
It’s a brave move for an established singer and a wonderful collection of songs to soak in.