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Emma Pollock — In Search of Harperfield (Chemikal Underground)

Emma Pollock - In Search of Harperfield
6 December 2016

Emma Pollock last toured the U.S. in 2007, opening shows for The New Pornographers. I saw her back then, and it seemed only natural that the leader of quietly beloved Scottish band The Delgados would inaugurate her solo career by supporting a Canadian power pop supergroup’s North American tour. I didn’t doubt the long-term viability of any of it. Almost a decade later her third solo album In Search of Harperfield appeared on the shortlist for 2016’s Scottish Album of the Year award, but has yielded only a handful of reviews in U.S. publications. The visibility of great European musicians too often suffers a lapse here just before epochal album #3. I still lament that time in 2012 when Sweden’s Frida Hyvönen, who had enjoyed all the blog attention afforded her fellow countrymen in the earlier aughts, had her third LP To The Soul, a meditation on lineage and death buoyed by bold arrangements and melodies that suggested an introvert’s ABBA fantasies, virtually ignored stateside.

So it goes. Albums get lost in the shuffle or in translation all the time. But I like imagining Pollock’s work as neglected, because it helps underline something important about her. Even allowing that she maintains a successful career in Scotland (she still runs Chemikal Underground, the record label that launched The Delgados twenty years ago), her music’s internal momentum, seemingly impervious to the passage of time and lack of immediate rewards, remains its most striking feature. With husband and fellow ex-Delgado Paul Savage producing, Pollock recorded Harperfield little by little across a span of five years, while the couple raised a teenage son and she cared for ailing parents, but the album never shows its seams. Piano and drums hit on the fifth word of the chorus of the album’s opening song and initiate instant grandeur, and a catalog that’s marked by ever-lengthening gaps between albums retains its musical through-line. A band usually needs some kind of constant external reinforcement to maintain the illusion of faultless consistency, but a solo artist can sometimes pull it off by piecing together years of painstaking work, the same way a life appears whole to an outside observer. Ken Stringfellow can do it, and Emma Pollock can do it. Tell these people that their work looks effortless, that they’re in perfect command of what they want to achieve, and it probably only brings their doubts to the surface, reminds them how much work it takes to keep convincing people of this effortlessness. But how should we know any better?

Close reading reveals some of the uncertainties that inform Pollock’s songwriting, but background information helps. Harperfield makes good company with Hyvönen’s To The Soul for obvious textual reasons — a mother and a grandmother loom large in both albums’ worlds — but Pollock opts for a more elliptical approach in the songwriting. Unlike the ancestor songs of younger artists, like EMA’s “Grey Ship,” Waxahatchee’s “Rose, 1956,” Hyvönen’s “Farmor,” where narrative unmistakably supports the singer’s search for personal significance, Pollock never names her characters or her relationships to them. She’ll take their voice, or sing directly to them. Her intentions aren’t always immediately evident, yet Harperfield is clearly heavy with unsettled history: its sepia cover photo is quickly turning green, as if underwater, while Pollock’s surname has been knocked upside down; its title names a quest to an obscure place; the opening song involves a “secret.”

It’s just one story that’s on Pollock’s mind in many of these choices, a story that she’s been candid about in interviews. Pollock’s mother, born to an unmarried Irish Catholic girl in 1937 (“out of wedlock,” they would have said), was removed from her mother’s care, adopted by a hospital worker and raised far from home, in Glasgow. Mother and grandmother met again 18 years later, and forged a relationship that remained difficult until their deaths, just hours apart in February of last year. It’s a family history so particular, so far-reaching in its effects, that every choice Pollock makes in its telling is significant. On “Cannot Keep A Secret,” her mother appears in the second person, and Pollock lets the listener intuit her irony when she frames the reunion of women as “patriarchs reclaimed.” The idea dashes any hopeful interpretation one might place on a line that appears later in “Dark Skies”: “We are the product of a million chances.” A less thorough songwriter might have this thought while quaintly imagining the courtship of their parents, but Pollock implies a corrupted lineage of chance. We are the product of policy, of governments and churches. Antiquated concepts retain their grip on the imagination, injustices wind through generations, and names are unstable.

And yet the arrangement, which slowly sighs away the human realm and seeks cosmic significance, couldn’t be more untroubled. Finger-picked guitars and strings retain no memory of the fingers that plucked them. If Pollock shares an ABBA debt with Hyvönen, it’s in the way she emphasizes presentation over process. From writing to recording, the final product remains the guiding force, though the results here are invariably more restrained than what producer Dave Fridmann lent to The Delgados’ early 00s albums.

This idea of playing and recording as a means to an end suggests that Pollock’s music is only as vital as her imagination. She’s stated in interviews that writing songs on a guitar, her preferred instrument, leads her to familiar patterns, but “Parks and Recreation” and “Vacant Stare,” the two guitar-oriented songs at the album’s center, don’t suffer from complacency. On “Parks,” she jettisons anything resembling a chorus and frees herself to parcel her words into short phrases that snowball with increasing urgency. The result is a song as tightly wound as “Acid Test” or “Adrenaline,” a decade ago. Sandy Denny is frequently cited as a reference point for Pollock’s melodic approach but my mind goes to Elvis Costello or Joe Pernice, singers who fill a song’s every available space with words and whose melodies seem lopsided and off-balance until repetition reveals their structure. Harperfield isn’t meandering or whimsical enough to sustain lines with as many notes as, say, Costello’s “You Little Fool” or Pernice’s “Cruelty to Animals,” but Pollock’s an omnipresent vocalist whose presence never grows wearying.

The evenness of her delivery makes her endlessly listenable, but also has a way of sometimes disguising the potency of her lyrics. “You walk towards me and my oxygen starts leaving,” she sings to a human nonentity on “Vacant Stare,” but even as the words recall the acrimonious breakup songs of John Grant, she sings it in a way that’s not quite pointed, not quite matter-of-fact, just partially drained of air. But effacement of personality is the song’s theme, not Pollock’s overall project. More often it’s her unwavering presence that might make her briefly invisible, as the listener grows accustomed to her.

I wish I could say In Search of Harperfield demands your attention, but that would be too strong a word. The demand would be entirely my own. Let’s just say it seeks your attention. It wouldn’t be wise to call it long-awaited, because I have no clue who was doing the waiting, and because, well, maybe five years is simply how long it takes to make an album in the 2010s, at least for artists less than fully insulated from the world. Musical genius excepted, I’ve been thinking of the rarity of albums like Harperfield as primarily an economic issue, an idea that 2016 makes daily more painful and unavoidable. Harperfield’s polish is part of its genius but could also be its curse. Music that doesn’t fully reveal the hard work that went into its making doesn’t as easily convince people of its value and its vulnerability.

 

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