When Australian singer-songwriter Emma Louise heard her vocals pitched-down during the making of her 2013 debut vs Head vs Heart, she kept them in a few tracks and christened the resulting deep-voiced character “Joseph”.
Considering the centrality of her high pretty croon to her success in the vocal-centric indie-pop genre, many fans probably weren’t thrilled when the press release for her third album, Lilac Everything, described it as “a whole album of Joseph”.
This characterisation and separation from Louise’s natural voice is further referenced in the album’s subtitle; A Project By Emma Louise. Just to clarify this is still her. All of this is almost humorously paired with her most straight-forward album cover yet, a shot of her face looking blankly and directly at the viewer as herself.
It’s a bold move for an artist who rose to success on her vocal performances to release a fully-fleshed album of electronically pitched-down vocals. But as someone who wouldn’t call themselves an Emma Louise fan and therefore has no real attachment to her natural voice, I can say that Lilac Everything is a surprising success.
The deep vocals sound surprisingly naturalistic and possibly even more soulful than her previous recordings. Strangely, the effect seems a ‘natural’ fit for her songwriting and vocal style. It does make many of the songs sound similar as the vocals are averaged to the same sound throughout the concise ten tracks, but individually the singing of each song sounds great.
Wish You Well opens the album in familiar chamber-pop territory, with a base of piano, steady drums, and a light string section. The deep vocals work amazingly on the chorus, really elevating the song. It also sets the lyrical theme of the album in its mopey address to a moving-on lover.
This is followed by Falling Apart, a slow soulful shuffle with a great jazzy drum sound driving the rhythm with a brushed snare. The new sound of her manipulated voice seems to be influencing Louise’s musical choices - it’s hard to imagine Falling Apart working well in her usual pop range.
Lyrically, the songs here are mostly all self-deprecating in their images of relationship worries. Louise consistently lists out her own flaws while admiring her lover/ex-lover for their tolerance. Gentleman is an outpouring of admiration for a lover and the effect he has on her. Elsewhere she sings “Somehow you always seem to stick around/even though I bring you down”, in the third track, Just The Way I Am.
Though a moving piece of songwriting, it suffers as a few of the songs here do from an overly washy production. The album is the first ever production job of Canadian musician Tobias Jesso Jr., so perhaps some settling-in to the role can be expected.
Though the vocals certainly deserve their spotlight, they are often a little bit too prominent in terms of sheer volume, while the instrumentation is drowned in a little too much reverb, burying any immediate impact of what should be anchoring instruments like the drums, bass and acoustic guitar. The result is that many songs, especially Just The Way I Am and the modern R’n’B ballad Shadowman don’t have any strong sonic centre in the mix to drive the songs home, leaving the loud vocals isolated without backup from the indistinct instrumentation behind them.
The album’s biggest highlight for me comes early on with the moving-on soul ballad Never Making Plans Again.
Joseph's mournful and restrained performance over muted piano and brushed drums perfectly embodies the reflective self-determination of the lyrics - “Well we all had a fair idea/of where we thought we’d be by here/drawing our plans in the schoolyard dirt”.
The other highlight is the first half of Mexico, where she paints a strong picture of hurt and ruminates on capturing feelings in painting over gentle synth pads, before partaking in the commonest pilgrimage in songwriting - “So I took a flight to Mexico/cause I just felt so lost…”. I say “the first half” because the second half is a culmination of the worst musical choices on the album, breaking into a big radio-pop beat with wordless backing vocals straight from a travel advert.
However despite the constant romantic pains Louise goes through on Lilac Everything, it takes until the end of the album to get genuinely touching, first with the minimal, almost-whispered A Book Left Open In A Wild Field Of Flowers (“I am a pocket of clouds/following everyone round/weighing everyone down”), and then with the closing When it Comes To You (“I am afraid...I am pitiful”).
Both songs sound stunning vocally and are great pieces of songwriting, the latter particularly fulfilling its role as the album closer by summing up all the themes and emotions that come before it and amplifying them into a storm of admiration and self-deprecating sorrow.
Lilac Everything is, in theory, a ridiculously bold concept. The idea of changing the pitch and very character of vocals seems to people to be more manipulative than even the most extreme autotune. But, amazingly, it seems that a fresh voice has enabled Emma Louise to find her own voice, per say, as an artist.
Speaking of the vocal manipulation, she has said “It was honestly the most relieving decision I’ve ever made, musically”, and based on the evidence of Lilac Everything, despite its many shortcomings, I have to agree.
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Released: 14 Sep 2018