“By certain scales, a life goes by so very fast/ Some days go easy, some will wear you like a mask,” a fortune-teller tells Emmy The Great in Hong Kong in 2017. Eerie choice of words, given the interaction occurs long before any inkling of a pandemic. But the fortune-teller, ‘Mary’, gives her the wrong fortune. In fact, Emmy The Great’s fourth album ‘April /月音’ offers a sharper and more accomplished vision of transition and time.
Written in the same season – autumn – as its release, but not at all the same world, ‘April /月音’ poises on the brink of national and international change, foregrounding peace and possibility in the face of uncertainty. Hong Kong’s future involves violent extradition protests and a long struggle for democracy. And a virus is coming. But in 2017, before all that, Emmy The Great walks carefree around a city celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival, a landscape of tasselled lanterns, mooncakes, and harvest hampers, in which she charts shifting lives and a sense of belonging.
Her music mirrors a heritage and upbringing split between Hong Kong and England: she dwells at the fringes of several genres, never surrendering to a single identity, belonging to everything and nothing all at once. Earlier songs like 2011’s ‘Trellick Tower’ from her second album ‘Virtue’ indicated a flair for reducing messy emotion to its most exact sensation. Emmy The Great writes in a similar way to Fiona Apple or Mitski: each line builds on the one directly before it, brick by brick, to construct a lyrical world that’s both full and fluid, compelled by the forward motion of time.
As well as the sturdy architecture of its lyrics, ‘April /月音’ succeeds via lush soundscapes: whispered Cantonese, subway sounds, the particular click of Hong Kong street crossings. The album’s clear setting ensures its appeal to anybody with an emotional tie to Hong Kong. But it will also appeal to anybody who knows how it is to be a changing human in a changing world. From the opening lines, “Every day I write down how I feel… These days it comes out in a flood,” we enter a world of relatable interiority that’s swayed by a vaster pull. What sounds like a city billboard slogan on ‘Dandelions’ has a deeper emotional reach: “But if pain is healthy for the body, baby, you too could have a body like mine.” Suffusing maturity with playfulness, her repeated urge to, “Come on let’s be dandelions/ Scatter all over the place,” matches the scattered traditional and modern elements that toy with each other throughout the record. Yet despite an eclectic mix of Canto pop, folk, the stand-out country shuffle of ‘Mary’, and the reassuring shoop-de-shoop of ‘Hollywood Road’, of instantly catchy tracks and ones that require more work from the listener, ‘April /月音’ remains enmeshed in its own world, like a film score, made to be consumed whole.
Listening to ‘April /月音’ is like travelling through a familiar city on a sunny day when everything looks clean and bright, dreaming up details of the perfect and fruitful life that always seems possible in seasons like April or autumn. Amid Emmy The Great’s trademark crushing tenderness, which arguably may never reach the heights of Trellick Tower, emerges a voice more defiant and focused than ever before, one that proclaims, “I’m a writer now and everything is sunny”. Though she knows the future is never more than just a hunch, on ‘April /月音’, Emmy The Great redefines her potential. “I don’t go in for crystal balls,” she sings, “but in that moment, I think I knew.”