By Christopher Hollow.
Emma Swift – Emma Swift (Independent)
My aunt used to say, ‘Surrender is the intersection between acceptance and change’. And it took several listens to understand that Emma Swift demands surrender. Surrender to its molasses slow pacing. Surrender to its charms, without fussing over missed opportunities.
Emma Swift may be a young artist but she’s tapping into an old tradition. The country music of swelling pedal steels, heartbreak, love and loss.
And she’s tasteful. The way she sings, the way the album is put together. The way the pedal steel dominates, the deep country bass guitar with its hint of swing.
The former triple j newsreader, and now curator of Double J’s Revelator program, moved to Nashville to write and record this album. She gathered together a crack studio team to pull off her old-school aims.
At its heart is “King of America”, a dreamscape in 6/8 that washes over eight unhurried minutes and successfully creates its own universe. The pedal steel letting loose with long, alluring, decaying notes. I’d love to think that the live versions of this song are even longer with people whooping and hollering when they instinctively realise they’ve yielded to this woozy worldview.
The other standout number is “Woodland Street”, an ode to the tree-lined avenue in East Nashville, with its standout lyric: Your burning out cigarette, might as well be a rose between your teeth.
Meanwhile, Swift taps into her love of 70s FM radio hits with the Motels’ “Total Control”, a song that was huge in Australia and nowhere else, and gives an inspired alternate reading.
One country music tradition Swift doesn’t tap into is the time-honoured twist in the lyrical tale. “Bittersweet” starts out sweet without ever being particularly bitter. Any predicament that Swift details is only because she wants to be there. It’s mournful but not desperate, you’re never in any doubt that there’s an escape clause or another willing suitor at the end of the bar.
Personally, I’d love to hear a touch of weird America wildness in the songs, a lyrical twist, or be surprised by an instrument/sound that doesn’t naturally belong on a country record.
Swift has been playing numerous shows with UK singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, a master of contorting a lyric to give a song a cracked view. A keen student, she’ll be taking notes on how to give her country airs that added dimension.
But these concerns are arbitrary, once you’ve surrendered.
My enjoyment of Emma Swift changed when I changed.
Emma Swift will be appearing as part of the Australian contingent at the Americana Festival in Nashville this week.