Ema by the Sea forgoes the pity and anger for self-reflection and steady, unobtrusive production.
In a world that hands out bitter salvos like The All-American Rejects’ “Gives You Hell” or anything on Adele’s 21, softer breakups often find themselves drowned beneath the din of sorrow and vengeance. Understandably, losing a partner typically brings forth all sorts of uncontrollable and unpredictable emotions. A song like Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” conveys such hurt and vengefulness through the vessel of a catchy tune. To really get the masses’ attention, the bold rebuttal is usually the way to go. It takes another type of talent to relay the end of a relationship with understated volume and introspection. Bassist Joseph Carvell, who goes by Pink Shabab boasts such talent, evident on his solo debut Ema by the Sea. Rather than rage or deliver soliloquies, Carvell takes his time. The lightness of its production directly mirrors his own unencumbered attitude. The nine tracks tend to run long, with steady, new wavy tempos and melodies through which his voice occasionally penetrates.
Even their names run long, though one grows to appreciate the album’s lengthy titles; while perhaps more difficult to remember, they force you to pay attention. Much of Ema by the Sea requires careful listening, from the confusing tempos (“Cry Every Night”) to Joseph Carvell’s distant, low-volume whimpering. The lack of volume to his voice grows annoying at times, but it does draw your focus.
Undoubtedly, the true reason behind this soft-spokenness lies in Carvell’s subject matter, which is clearly the end of a relationship, but not approached in the standard manner. Ema by the Sea is reflective instead of reactionary, with the vocalist retreating into himself and the dancefloor to find answers. From the get go, he conveys his woes in a reserved, English manner, preferring his bass and an accompanying flute speak for him on “If Only I Could Hold You One More Time.” The more direct he becomes, the softer he becomes: “Almost every night” is barely more than an exhale in “Cry Every Night.” Ironically with “Let Me Explain.” he goes silent, and lets a zig-zagging synth convey his message.
The longer you listen to Ema by the Sea, the more you sense someone coming to terms with a situation they never expected, and a person they never expected to become. At night, Carvell pictures “Your face next to me/ Then I wake” because in his real life, the words escape him. “Interlude,” with its intermittent whirs and chimes, arrives as a sort of wakeup call, a funky nudge awake instead of a blaring alarm. It registers as someone acutely aware of their setbacks and shortcomings without the self-deprecation or pity so often turned to in entertainment.
If anything, Ema by the Sea thrives through its acknowledgement of both its positive and negative traits. “Now she’s got to see the world/ While you’re stuck here on your own” so goes the “Last of the Boys,” where bleak lyrics are met with a strangely buoyant groove. Not settling quite for vindication nor despondence, Carvell instead gives a little of each by going for admissions: he may be alone, but that means he wears the honor of being the last to change, the last to grow up.
When such change becomes inevitable, “You Can’t Go Back” strolls in like a late-night walk to clear your head. The tempo is relaxed as well as subdued, as if something’s finally brought Carvell back down to earth in preparation for the finale, “The Sun is My Lord.” With an intro more confident than anything else on the album, it signifies Carvell’s transition from “youth” (the translation of “shabab”) to something a little more mature, maybe, like Britney, not yet a full adult. The kick drum and synths carry it along, but Carvell’s bass, truly uninhibited, reveals a person who’s changed for the better and knows it. We should all be so lucky.