Monday, September 10, 2018

album review: 'villains' by emma blackery

So I'm not going to lie, I was not expecting this would have the staying power it did to rise up my schedule, because even on a slow week it can get awkward talking about records from fellow YouTubers who more likely than not will see this video. And since there's a very good chance this might wind up in a reaction compilation somewhere - possibly by her - I wanted to ensure I gave this my due diligence, especially as I've watched a fair number of her videos in the past.

So, Emma Blackery - from the U.K., she started on YouTube about a year before I did as a way to promote her music, blew up considerably over the past several years, and while her collection of channels have gone through a number of permutations, the music has been a consistent feature, even if I'll freely admit a certain limited familiarity with her singles ahead of time. In going back to revisit them, she hit something of a stride with a bratty, pop punk sound that got smoothed into a pop lane that feels very close to something Paramore would have released around the turn of the decade. Now I'll freely admit I have issues with Paramore in that era, and I was genuinely curious whether she'd follow the same path they did for her independently released debut album - apparently she was going electro-pop this time around, which could definitely work with the right producers and if she had the hooks. I'll freely admit I was a little skeptical, but hey, Troye Sivan had stuck the landing when I covered him last week, I hoped Emma Blackery would be in the same boat here, so how did Villains turn out?

Honestly, a lot better than I expected. Yeah, I'll admit I had low expectations - I've seen entirely too many rock and punk-leaning acts make the pop pivot and pitch a lot of their identity out the window, and to her credit Emma Blackery is a strong enough songwriter not to do this. But this project also gives me the impression I've had the wrong comparison points, because while there are some parallels to Hayley Williams' forced smile in the face of existential depression, Blackery hews a lot closer to October, CHVRCHES, and maybe even Lights in her darker, smarter, more detail-rich pop music. And as such, it's a promising debut - maybe not quite great, but better than I expected for sure.

And for a change of pace, we're starting with content, because how this album is framed is absolutely its biggest selling point - to put it bluntly, the title of this record isn't lying, and for the majority of this record, Emma Blackery is playing 'the villain'. And this is not just slipping into 'bad girl titillation', for which Blackery avoids altogether in painting a smaller but more realistic picture. And you can tell she's comfortable wearing a darker image that invites the audience to see a more nuanced point of view that's not exactly sympathetic - she'll be petty and dispassionate, jaded and honest to the point of cruelty, and while she's aware there's some vicious catharsis in embracing that, she's also acutely aware of the consequences both to her and those around her. Taylor Swift's heel turn has been described as an inspiration for her, but Blackery is far more convincing if only because she doesn't have to bear the same baggage and iconography Taylor Swift had, plus seeming way more self-aware. Hell, by the time we get to 'Icarus' she tips her hand at the danger of instigating drama and overexposure, but even before then there are clues about listless boredom and loneliness that's more reflective of the human reality of an assumed 'villainous state' than any veneer of cool might be. And sure, some of it might have roots in being framed as 'the bad guy' by exes, be it true or not, and there's an intense, self-destructive, almost paranoid desire to own that if only to control the narrative, but at the end of the day you wind up having to live with yourself - the audience stops caring about your self-destruction and you need to grapple with your internal issues of what being the villain really means, and that mature final question left open is a big step and a character arc in the album's narrative that's very well-handled.

So okay, great thematic execution with a lot of nuance, going into territory that's relatively unique for this brand of pop, especially with Emma Blackery actually sounding convincing playing that role, so what's holding this project back from greatness? Well, this is where we get into the execution of these ideas, and really it's no one thing across the board - which is promising for a debut project, with the implication that there's only little things to be directly addressed. I'm also going to set aside my personal preferences here when it comes to genre and delivery - I liked the rougher, rock aesthetic that Blackery was using previously in terms of feeling a bit more immediate and visceral, but I understand why that might have been set aside and to be fair, the pop production suits her voice and heavier multi-tracking quite well - hell, for the most part I think the production is leaps and bounds most of what we get from YouTube artists. That said, even if the polished pop gloss was intentional for ironic juxtaposition - she's being framed as the villain and even despite her wanting to own it it's not a reality, hence the production not sounding grittier or darker - I do think this record could have had more kick and power, and it strikes me as a missed opportunity that songs did not get noisier or nastier, especially to match the language of a song like the title track - I'd take the distortion over the strings sections, even if they mostly fit for the fluttery 'Icarus'. 

And again, this can be a tricky line to walk in balancing between being callous and icy and simultaneously pop-friendly and catchy - even if October nailed this balance on Ultra Red the best with her embrace of industrial sounds she couldn't keep it consistent - but I do think track sequencing could have helped in this regard, as there's some considerable whiplash between the seething walls of guitars on the opening title track and the peppy, synth-inflected bounce of 'Dirt'. This also feeds into certain language choices that feel like more of a concession to a pop framework that's not as smart as the rest of Blackery's writing - I'm okay with the pettiness, but the letter callouts on 'Agenda' and the very forced hook of 'Take Me Out' don't connect. And there's no way around certain comparisons - between the slightly synthetic vocal filters and sharper bite of the aggressive synths and pulsating low-end on songs like 'Fake Friends', it's hard to avoid the CHVRCHES comparison... although to her credit, I'd take a considerable number of these songs over the swamped out mess that was CHVRCHES' last album, mostly because the melodies remain prominent and generally compliment the pulsating grooves well. Even if 'Petty' feels like a gender-flipped version of Justin Bieber's 'Love Yourself' with a EDM drop, I'd prefer it coming from Blackery, and following it with the tight new wave grooves of 'Third Eye', warping misty gloss of 'What I Felt With You' and huge, trap-inflected hook of 'Burn The Witch' is a really solid run into a strong conclusion.

So at the end of the day... this is a tricky album to place in context, because unlike pop artists like Dua Lipa or Carly Rae Jepsen or Rae Morris, this is a project best appreciated as an album rather than a collection of singles, which is not common for artists in pop with this sound - even if I'd argue she's considerably better than whenever Halsey tries it. Indeed, if there's a factor that would get me to recommend this project, it'd be the writing, which I'd argue is head-and-shoulders above anything else on the project in terms of uniqueness and nuance, and can redeem compositions and production that are solid but don't leap off the page in the same way, which is what holds her back from the territory of Lorde or St. Vincent or Shura or even Carly Rae Jepsen. And that's tough for Blackery, because I think she'd sound more comfortable both in vocal delivery and with her style of writing in indie pop or rock, but those genres don't have the single-driven virality for which her production seemed designed. But again, that's me trying to recontextualize the sound and genre of the album, which isn't fair for a perfectly solid pop release, and as such I'm giving this a 7/10 and a recommendation. At the very least if you were disappointed by CHVRCHES or a slew of the other synthpop releases we've gotten in 2018, Emma Blackery makes a credible argument to where she should be in that field, and I definitely respect that.

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