Second Love fits comfortably within Moss’ sound, and it shows quite the range.
Emmy the Great, the moniker of Emma-Lee Moss, was an integral part of the London anti-folk scene. Her two previous albums, First Love (2009) and Virtue (2011), were melancholy acoustic efforts that highlighted her bare songwriting and soft vocals. Second Love is her first album in four years, and while it maintains—if not improves upon—Moss’ talent for eloquent lyrics and understated vocals, it sees her make that significant shift from acoustics to electronics.
Don’t let that blanket statement deceive you. Second Love is just as spare as anything Moss has released previously but with the added benefit of some stellar muted electronics. Opener “Swimming Pool” is both the best example of this new, electronic Emmy the Great and, since it was released in 2014, the first hint she gave as to her new direction. A wavering synth makes the aquatic imagery tangible while simultaneously giving Moss’ song of wanderlust a strikingly woozy atmosphere. And that dream-haze sound is characteristic of the entire album, from the cascade of effects on “Hyperlink” to the dynamic guitars of “Social Halo.”
The most dramatic change from previous albums may be the arrangements themselves. Moss not only introduces more electronic instruments but she layers them in such a way as to make what are essentially spare tracks intriguingly complex. “Never Go Home” is a simplistic song about lovers on the run, but the combination of stuttering beats, piano and ethereal, duplicated vocals saves it from being a disappointing track. Then, there’s the surprise of drum machines on “Dance w Me” and the track’s overall R&B influence, tempered by a tinny, childlike synth line. On the album’s tail-end, “Part of Me” is a deceptively simple song that initially builds on twinkling synths and a funky beat to a crescendo of gentle fretwork and a chorus of layered backing vocals.
If the title isn’t enough of an indication, the major theme at work on this album is, of course, love. Moss’ approach to the subject, however, isn’t a straightforward retread. In many cases, she’s singing about people she has never even met. The love on “Swimming Pool” is indirect and vicarious, with Moss tenderly singing about spying on her neighbor and imagining herself a fixture of his summer days. By contrast, “Algorithm” feeds on the notion that finding love is merely a matter of getting the math right. “Dance w Me” is less optimistic in favor of blunt, lustful honesty: “Dance with me/ Cause we’ll be alone by tomorrow/ And you should get what you want tonight.” Personal favorite “Phoenixes” is the sole outlier that forgoes all that talk about love with its retrospective mix of pop guitars and nostalgic lyrics directed towards a “screen-grab beauty queen.”
For all its novelty in Moss’ discography, Second Love fits comfortably within her sound, and it shows quite the range, within the limits of melancholic synth-pop. The latter half slows things down tremendously, especially with “Shadowlawns” and “Lost in You,” but that only allows her songwriting to shine. The shift to electronics has certainly paid off because the subdued synths that lend subtle nuance to these tracks complement Moss’ pared back vocal exquisitely.