If Avalon Emerson seems like she knows everything, & the Charm wishes it could know less. The lyrics to “Sandrail Silhouette” or “Hot Evening” play out like someone reminiscing in the incandescent glow of vintage photographic slides, hinting at details just outside the frame. The music feels a little intentionally maladjusted, a little out of step, because instead of bending tempos or pitch in a DJ mix, Emerson is playing with the emotional timing mechanisms of nostalgia. Within the bittersweet isolation chamber of “Entombed in Ice” or the idyllic memory of air travel on “Dreamliner,” you might perceive something of the pandemic mood, a wistful spiritual fatigue combined with the faint glimmer of unrealized possibility. An album about memory is also an album about forgetting, about past futures forever unexplored.
The more reflective, inward-looking style of & the Charm misses some of what characterizes Emerson’s best club tracks: the confident fluidity and lively sociability of someone who DJ’d a lot of big parties before assembling beats at home. Within the conceit of the solo singer-songwriter album, under the circumstances of the pandemic, Emerson is stuck—“worse, California-pilled”—and we’re alongside her for the duration. Her not-really-a-singer voice gives the album its distinctive personality: sweet and disarming, hermetic and a little tentative, not really like Marie Davidson, who was effectively mean-mugging part of the time, but more like Arthur Russell in the way Emerson’s not-really-singing imparts a spontaneous sincerity.
Sincere, self-taught, conceived under the auspices of the crisis everybody wishes they could leave behind: No wonder Emerson herself expected this music to turn out a little cringe. But & the Charm is so tranquil and unconcerned with impressing you that it’s faintly disconcerting. “Hang the cowards, hang the DJs,” Emerson muses at one point, like a cheeky, self-deprecating nudge at people who’d rather not reveal their full, flawed selves in their art. Not everything feels effortless: The wubby synth bass licks on “A Vision” upset the balance of Emerson’s featherweight vocal, and the pretty but inert “The Stone” could have been an interlude. But it’s well placed to gather one’s breath before the exhilarating “Dreamliner,” one of my favorite songs this year. Not coincidentally that’s the track that lands closest to Nighttime Avalon, one of those satisfying four-on-the-floors that peel up at the edges to let their romantic psychedelic glow seep out. Who needs a chorus?
All this, of course, would have been far harder to pull off after the banger techno LP that Emerson surely still has stashed away in her brain. When you’re famous enough for a following and not so famous that you’re bound to disappoint the casuals is really the perfect moment for a record like this. And & the Charm feels right on time in general: for club culture going pop, for new albums from club-goes-pop progenitors Everything But the Girl and Alison Goldfrapp, for last year’s new project from Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins, for a new Rae Sremmurd song (and a semi-official Jason Derulo track) sampling Y2K soft-rock radio queen Dido, for Kim Petras and Nicki Minaj’s remake of Alice Deejay. The vibe is luminous pastels, elegant sway, adult-contemporary electro, and an uncombed, unselfconscious attitude that circles right back around to being cool, and Avalon Emerson’s got it.
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Avalon Emerson: & the Charm