I’ve never made any attempt to hide my admiration for Emilie Simon. Considering the lengths I’ve been willing to go through to acquire her albums—and in several cases, multiple copies—it’s no surprise that two of them made my list of the best albums of the last decade, one of them taking the top spot. If you look, you’ll find these pages are full of adulation. From start to finish, I’ve always been quite up front about my crazy crush on the music, not to mention the woman behind it.
And now, with the long-overdue American release of The Big Machine (her fourth studio album), it’s a pleasure for me to sit back and watch as other Stateside media get their first serious glimpse of an artist who’s had my ear for some five years now. But at the same time, The Big Machine is something of a rebirth for Emilie Simon as well. Call it the beginning of her “American” period [insert copious anecdotes about Antonín Dvořák and the “New World” Symphony]: the first album written (almost) entirely in English, and a whole new sound largely inspired by her adopted home of Brooklyn, NY.
From the opening moments of “Rainbow” (listen to the remix above), The Big Machine seems to bear next to no resemblance to Emilie’s earlier albums. The studied electro-acoustic chamber numbers of her first records are gone, replaced by a dozen pseudo-club anthems that appear (at first listen at least) to owe more to 1980s discotheques and cabaret than to IRCAM or Cyrille Brissot. Where albums like Végétal were often contained, deliberate, even pointillistic, The Big Machine is possessed by a sweeping brightness that inhabits every song—a quality hinted at in older songs like “Sweet Blossom” but only now being fully embraced.
At first I was somewhat disheartened to note the change in Emilie’s music. The sauntering dance hall rhythms of “Ballad of the Big Machine” and “Rocket to the Moon” for instance, though immediately appealing, felt out of place. (Fun fact: Dorothy Parker was once arrested and charged with “sauntering”. She plead guilty and was fined $5.) But when you’ve perfected a sound, as I believe she did with Végétal and March of the Penguins, there are really only three follow-up options: 1) record the same album over and over again; 2) retire; or 3) try something new. Thankfully for us, Emilie has chosen option three and there is a lot to love about the change.
Where Emilie’s previous albums have been decidedly solo efforts—intricately auteured constructions—The Big Machine opens up its doors ever so narrowly to select outside influences, be it fantasy/horror writer Graham Joyce (contributing lyricist on “Fools Like Us”, “Rainbow”, “The Way I See You”, “Nothing To Do With You”, “This Is Your World”), Kelly Pratt (Beirut; Arcade Fire), Jeremy Gara (Arcade Fire), Jon Natchez (Beirut), or engineers Mark Plati (David Bowie) and François Chevallier. Even so, despite such varied contributions (not to mention the inevitable comparisons to Kate Bush), Emilie’s guiding hand is present throughout.
The markers are not always readily apparent, of course, but they are there. Tucked behind the brass and driving synths are the carefully manipulated electronics that characterized Vegétal. Other spots—the tag at the very end of “Rainbow”, for instance, or the found sounds that open and close “Ballad of the Big Machine”, or the entirety of “Fools Like Us”—are vintage Emilie. But the most thrilling moments on this album—the ones that most emphatically reaffirm my willingness to follow Emilie Simon anywhere and everywhere she wants to take me—were only ever hinted at in her earlier work.
A necessary consequence of the often subdued quality of her older electro-acoustic numbers, Emilie’s vocals, more often than not, have been pulled back and absorbed into the texture of the songs. That was the nature of the music. But it’s difficult to put into words (and, believe me, I’ve been trying to do just that for several days now) the shear joy of hearing those once restrained vocals brought to the front. I live for the slow-building bridges of tracks like “Rainbow” or “Dreamland”and to hear Emilie let loose on “Nothing To Do With You” injects the song with an added dimension of urgency.
To be honest, it has taken me nearly a year and half to really understand The Big Machine—and that’s what I’m going for, here: understanding. But I’ve said that sort of thing about Emilie before. If you think you finally understand what she’s up to, it’s only because you’re on the verge of uncovering something entirely new. But that’s what we want from an artist, isn’t it? It’s what I want—someone to grow old with, but who never grows boring. It’s why I still read Tender Is The Night, how I inadvertently memorized The Waste Land, and that’s why I’ll still be listening to Emilie Simon and The Big Machine decades from now.
Still interested? Read my interview with Emilie.
I’ve gone back and forth on the spelling of Emilie’s name. Wikipedia and most media outlets are spelling it ‘Émilie’. Her website, albums, Facebook and Twitter account spell it ‘Emilie’. So I’ve followed the ‘official’ example and opted to leave off the accent.