When it comes to indie singer/songwriter Emm Gryner, I always have very high expectations. This might have something to do with the fact that her album Northern Gospel was my #1 album of 2011 and that her album Torrential was my #12 album of 2014. Suffice to say she’s one of my favorites, so forgive this review for being a bit biased.
If you’ve read my reviews of Emm’s albums, you would quickly discover that my favorite songs of hers tend to be her ballads. There’s something dreamy and romantic about her voice that suits them so well. Meanwhile, her lyrics are always deeply affecting, never failing to tug at one’s heartstrings. The happy ones make your heart feel warm and fluttery. The sad ones are enough to move you to tears.
As you could guess from the title, 21st Century Ballads is an album of ballads, but all 10 tracks are brand new songs. Aside from Emm’s butterfly beautiful voice, the songs all have something else in common: they’re all piano ballads. To that end, the songs might feel like they’ve blurred into one long, monotonous track by the time you’re done listening to the record for the first time. Being entirely honest, I must admit that it felt that way to me the first few times I listened to it. Still, even if it felt like one long song, it was a very emotive and touching one. That being the case, and my being such a fan of Emm’s, I kept on listening to the album and that fourth time I noticed as it shifted from one song to the next. In fact, I discovered that there were many differences between the tracks. You just had to actively listen to the record to appreciate them. When I’d previously listened to it, I had it on in the background while I was reading or trying to fall asleep at night, so of course it wound up sounding like one long song. But now I was giving the record my full attention as I listened and things were clicking into place nicely.
The album opens with one of its saddest songs, a downright depressing number called “The Race.” “Everybody flies away saying they feel better,” she sings, but that’s about the only upbeat lyric. And it might not even be entirely upbeat. One gets the feeling that she’s singing about other people flying away, saying they feel better, while she’s still stuck in a rut.
“Rulebook” follows and continues with somber sounding piano, but it’s at least slightly more optimistic. “This little rule book, gonna burn it in the backyard baby,” she sings, seemingly declaring her independence as she sings the song that would seem to be about growing up.
‘Digging in the garden / Tears before the harvest,” she sings on “Tears Before The Harvest.” As the song nears its end, she sings, “At the end of our universe / I know what I will dream / That I loved you / And in your way you loved me.”
Perhaps the saddest song on the album is “Duped.” “Well, I feel small / Don’t we all / We are missing you or someone we thought we knew / It’s so wrong / And the worst part of it is, is you’re all gone,” she sings and it’s easy to imagine tears pouring down her cheeks as she does. And the song’s main piano chord is simple but it pierces your soul and haunts you long after the song is done.
Another highlight is “Nor’easter,” named after the infamous storms we experience in the North East, not just here in the States but, apparently, in Canada, which I’m assuming since Emm is Canadian. “Hands on the wheel / Metal meets song / Now just rewind,” she sings, driving through a storm. It’s not exactly a sad song though, at least not entirely, as it eventually finds her singing “Under the Nor’easter / I finally rose.” Nothing like a good old-fashioned snow storm to help you think through something.
I suppose this is an album you’d probably have to be a fan of Emm already to fully appreciate. If someone played me an album by an artist I’d never heard of before and all of the songs were piano ballads I might find it monotonous. After all, I’m a big fan of Emm’s and that’s how I felt the first few times I listened to it. But if you have the time to invest in it, the dividends are enormous.
Emm Gryner’s music is always touching and especially so on this album.