[sic] Magazine

Emily Wells – Promise

Time to dust down those hard-earned sociology degrees, dear readers, for Emily Wells’s intelligent latest, Promise, goes deep on the subject. During its recording, the Texan multi-instrumentalist, cultural polymath, composer and freak-folkish songwriter drew solace from, amongst other things, footage of Pina Bausch’s choreography, the ideas of contemporary light and space artist James Turrell, as well as from the novels and essays of Joan Didion, whose work tackles the disintegration of morals and the fragmentation of identity. Promise’s artwork is taken from a Cabello/Carceller installation, too, a decision that helps frame its aural consumption in terms of raw potential rather than in the mundanity of pure assurance.

Promise is also an album released on Wells’s own Thesis & Instinct label, a new endeavour which takes its name from modernist poet’s Wallace Stevens’ insistence that “Life cannot be based on a thesis, since, by nature, it is based on instinct.” Interesting stuff, but a lot of this is just meta data, though, for at its lyrical core Promise is a body of songs that deals, simply, with tear-stained relationships, heart-vs.-head love troubles and outright societal uncertainty. Is it a let-down, then? Is Promise, more pertinently, a case of potential fulfilled?

There’s no doubt in either case that Wells is on similarly ambitious form to her previous offering, Mama, an album which played CocoRosie-style mewing off against lush compositions and laptronic beats – occasionally quite spectacularly – such as on its ever-standout cut “Let Your Guard Down”. Promise is a more svelte offering in comparison, however, at once more adult, better balanced and, perhaps, even more musically adventurous. In a sea of Lynchian lullabies, “Pack Of Nobodies”, for example, turns in a defiantly crisp hip-hop beat and some strictly NSFW lyrics, while a track like “Antidote” is happier to make its point with the gentle brush of acoustic guitar. Wells’s vocal range, too, remains rather arresting. Her strongly voiced – yet resolutely feminine – alt-pop still veers between those same old creaks, atmospheric echo-effects, close-mic’ed humming and now, also, on to a sweetly sustained and really quite special register somewhere in the realm of Nancy Sinatra/Lana Del Rey.

The string work is more accomplished, too, swooping and slashing violin melodies establishing a more prominent neo-classical sub-plot to proceedings. Promise, naturally, has its highlights, too. “Los Angeles” mixes choral bliss with the skitter and pulse of leftfield electronica. It’s like latter-day Björk (one of a number of moments that recall the recent work of the Icelandic one) teaming up with Julianna Barwick and it’s an entirely suitable ode to the city of dreams. In turn, the spiritual “Don’t Use Me Up” and “Come To Me” have roots in multi-tracked, washer-woman gospel, religious imagery stacked onto shuffling guitar chords, the tracks building like a classicist take on tUnE-yArDs material, Merrill Garbus’s trademark kitchen-sink instrumentation replaced by grand piano, orchestral squiggles and flourishes.

Where concept meets reality, though, Wells seems to have afforded herself too much rope. Her eleven tracks last an hour and though she proudly sides with James Turrell’s notion that “…not everyone will sit in a darkened room for ten minutes before they begin to see”, you start to fear that during the fading light of the LP’s second half that no matter how long you stare at her repetitive running order that you won’t be able to see its wood for the trees. While producer Jacob Plasse has done a decent job allowing “the songs to sit … in their own clothes” you nevertheless feel that someone with a stronger hand may have been able to condense Promise into a sharper product befitting of its undeniable potential.

Best track: “Los Angeles”

~Promise is released January 29th 2016 via Thesis + Instinct Records.~