It’s so striking to hear an artist working through stuff on a record – when you feel like you’re discovering things about them as they discover things about themselves. Emma Russack’s In A New State is an album of transition, of slow self-forgiveness and a graceful resignation. Russack knows it’s not as simple as moving on without looking back – this record looks back a lot – but every time it gets a little easier.
The transition process on A New State is completely unhurried – every song unfolds beautifully and gently. Even ‘Have You’, a minute and a half of building stormy guitars and cymbals, waits till the right moment to deliver the crushing end note ‘I don’t have you / and that’s…Just… Fine’. It’s one of those absolutely ‘not fine’ fines, but soon it’ll be the truth.
With a record that’s this honest and lyrically engaging, the temptation is to just quote words from it and make up stories about what they might be about (which I’m definitely about to do), but it’s worth commenting on how much emotional work is done by the music as well. There’s a gentle push and swing to these songs, always coaxing you to feel a little more, listen a little closer. And you do, from the prettily echoing guitar of opener ‘Cottesloe’, a song about a good memory that sets the reflective tone of the songs to come, to the dramatic borderline cheesy oscillating synth of ‘Not the Friend’. ‘Not The Friend’ is probably the most fun song on the record too – it’s still possible to have a good time with some bad feelings.
‘If You Could See Me Now’ reads initially as a kind of declaration on the good of self-care, with the understandably oft quoted line ‘I don’t have sex / for validation / I’ve had no sex in six months / but I’m happy’. But while she’s not looking for validation, she might be looking for something else – closure. The ‘you’ in these songs only exists in memories, they’re not calling or coming to shows or liking your selfies, and some of the best parts of this record have Russack dealing honestly with this loss. Like on ‘Another Chance’, which captures that need to stay busy and distracted in order to forget – ‘so many years to fill up / so many years without you’ – which works especially well back to back with ‘You Gave Me’. On that song she’s admitting that nothing’s working and the only thing to do is to leave town, cause moving on sometimes means running away.
I’m guilty of romanticising the idea of growing up in small seaside or country towns – I grew up in the city (well, Brisbane) and I still live fifteen minutes’ walk from where I went to high school. I was a sheltered and neurotic teen and I’m an anxious and cynical adult. I’ve never felt what it’s like to move away and come home and be a stranger. Or that feeling of escape; when you get to leave everything behind and start new in a big city. And I’m kind of obsessed with it. So take this with a grain of salt, but I think ‘Narooma’ captures this feeling impeccably. One side of a small-town upbringing is the freedom to experiment and grow up a little fast, as Russack shows on ‘Best Love’, talking about her relationship with an older man at 16. It’s the most romantic song here, her voice taking on a country-singers heavy-hearted nostalgia. But it also isn’t afraid to delve into the grey area, of her being ‘still a child’ and maybe taken in by the adult world too soon. Russack revels in grey areas, in second-guessing herself and her past.
Emma Russack was apparently gonna quit music early last year, before a well-timed grant swooped in and prompted her to give it another crack. And, phew, cause Australian music would be way less brave and beautiful without her.