Singer, songwriter, musician and poet Emily Jane White hails from Oakland, California, and has recorded They Moved In Shadow All Together, her fifth album, for the most part in San Francisco’s Tiny Telephone Studio under the auspices of John Vanderslice, over the two-year period up to last September.
It’s a hauntingly intimate collection of songs which she describes as focussing conceptually on the symptomatology of trauma, a pattern of experiences marked by the fragmentation of the self. That’s not anywhere near as intimidating as it sounds, I hasten to add! For the settled aura and collective sonic identity of Emily Jane’s music does, in a way, provide a kind of aural metaphor for the shattered pieces within the psyche gathering themselves together as they cope with a tragedy.
Although the overall blend of sounds and voices is soothing, it’s disorientating, even disturbing too, in that it sounds almost dissociated from its components. In turn, this aspect mirrors the image conjured by the album’s title, which was itself inspired by the opening line of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Outer Dark. The image concerned, that of the silhouette of a group of travellers descending a hill and (ominously) moving in shadow together, is powerfully extended into the eye-catching cover photograph of a spectral yet intensely tangible silhouetted figure against a backdrop of shifting clouds. These cloudscapes seem in turn to be reflected back into the music by way of its polyvocal arrangements (Emily’s voice in copiously multitracked harmonies), which exhibit an ethereal, angelic (airborne and almost heavenly) character.
The instrumental scoring is ripe with a pervasive sense of melancholy – Emily’s guitar or piano overlaid with weaving, moodily veiled cello lines, underpinned by firm yet subtle bass and employing occasional portentous percussion for dramatic emphasis at the self-confessed bombastic moments. The naturally reverberant quality of the recording, its sense of luscious space, further adds to the unearthliness of the whole experience, although its sensory impact is rendered even more plangent by the detailed perusal of the lyrics (these are clearly, conveniently and helpfully printed on the inner panels of the packaging). The disparity of emotional responses and triggers are the driving force for reactions, and are not always logical or easy to assimilate, and the way the music is constructed may to some extent enable this process, being at once cathartic and positive.
Similarly with Emily Jane’s lyrics, which admit from the outset that even in a frozen garden, trauma is a complex state and cannot be vouchsafed by any of the usual rules or patterns. The insistent gentle pounding of that opening track sets the eerie mood for what’s to come, yet also encourages empathy in the listener through its juxtaposition of smooth melody and restless beats: that contradiction of emotional pull again. The tumbling filigree guitar pattern of Pallid Eyes calls up the frayed sheets and gray ice, against which Hands’ particularly nightmarish portrayal of the state of trauma is arguably too sweetly voiced for its realisation that “this ain’t no dream.” The floating, dreamlike Nightmares On Repeat may fare more accurately in this respect, while the ensuing recriminatory Rupturing has more of a neo-classical feel with its rippling piano arabesques harking back to a murky past. Moulding is spine-tinglingly beautiful, healing the wounds that will never bleed again, while both The Black Dove and Womankind take the violence and wounding out of the realm of the purely personal into the global political arena. Maybe Antechamber isn’t as fully formed or integrated as the other songs, but the album ends on a more satisfyingly mysterious note with the more insistent rhythms of Behind The Glass.
Much like the album’s title, then, the songs within share a special, if occasionally stifling sound-world that moves in shadow all together in its own kind of artistic, musical and dramatic unity, whose intimacy is sometimes quite overpowering in spite of its pervasive sense of distance and shadowy remove. And the particular shades and contours of Emily Jane’s voice prove tailor-made for the expression of these life-contradictions in song.
They Move In Shadow All Together is out now via Talitres