A 20-year musical and spiritual journey culminates in Emil Amos painting his masterpiece, a collection of lush, dark pop simultaneously mining the Portland songwriter’s core influences and freeing him to chart fresh territory.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
In the nearly bygone world of albums as artistic statements, a choice cover song could tell you a lot about the record’s original material, too. Acting as a kind of code between artist and listener, the best covers managed to both surprise and make perfect sense, adding to the fuller context of the record.
Hear, for example, the stunning version of Del Shannon’s lost nugget, “It’s My Feeling,” on Emil Amos’ latest Holy Sons record, In the Garden (released on Partisan Records late last month). Taken from the unreleased (until 1978) Home & Away sessions recorded in 1967 by the Rolling Stones’ then-producer Andrew Loog Oldham, the original’s soaring melody highlights Amos’ most melodic and song-driven album, while its unfiltered emotional content gets to the heart of In the Garden as well. After decades battling alcoholism and depression, Del Shannon killed himself in 1990, a price that goes unsaid but certainly not unnoticed here and in Amos’ work in general.
“It’s My Feeling” is, in short, the perfect cover for a nearly perfect record of Amos’ Holy Sons self-analysis project—which for 20 years and a dozen albums has been exploring the Faustian bargain of destroying oneself “to find out what’s at the bottom of this highly efficient, trained, ritualized robot,” as Amos told the L.A. Weekly in 2011. (“Self-destruction comes down to celebrate/Like a lightning bolt to revelate,” he sings here on “Denmark.”)
With a one-man “performed by” credit and only John Agnello’s (Dinosaur Jr., Kurt Vile) production between messenger and message, Amos opts here for 10 tracks of lush, dark pop, putting aside the experimental touches that adorned the songs on 2014’s The Fact Facer, as well as their druggy, plodding tempos. Also gone is the scathing commentary—aimed inward and outward—of that album, and the desperate sense of loss that permeated last year’s elegiac Fall of Man. In their place comes a graceful set of melodies that mirror the understanding that Amos offers—however illusory—to himself and to us, and that might’ve represented our original Garden bargain.
“I need to put myself down/On the ground again/Refocus the lens/Need to put these prison clothes away/Taking back what the river came and took away,” Amos defiantly sings on “Original Sin” over churning guitars, soaring synths and his signature big percussion. The prison metaphor appears again in the rushing, bass-propelled tempo of “Behind Glass,” but the desire to rid oneself of the hair shirt of self-loathing and sin guilt ties these songs together like bonding cement.
Yet Amos’ songs transcend any simplistic plea for a return to innocence. He’s fully cognizant that the Fall—literal or figurative—fuels the creative spirit. “The pendulum swings and it brings me things/Replacing whatever it took away,” he sings on disc-opener “Robbed and Gifted,” as layers of guitars, piano and percussion stack up and then peel off, leaving him singing the song’s refrain over the metronomic tick-tock of time.
In the Garden delights sonically, deliberately recalling the classic blend of pop, rock and psychedelia of the late-‘60s and ‘70s without turning to the tropes of the era so obvious in the work of other backwards-looking acts today. The album succeeds because it’s a contemporary distillation of those influences and Amos’ own extensive catalog of musical exploration. The acoustic guitar and twangy electric fills on the gently swaying road trip hymn “Denmark” recall Amos’ late-‘90s/early-‘00s work; “Double Negative” has a sinister feel worthy of the mysterious songs that Grails—for whom Amos drums—conjures. Additional dreamy guitar lines turn the bluesy riff that drives “Pattern Gets Cold” into an Obscured by Clouds-era textured gem, while “Too Late” taps into that late-60s Del Shannon vibe to create a mournful ballad where “freedom’s just a word that you don’t need to understand.”
That consciousness of what freedom implies is both gift and curse, made plain in the LP’s gorgeous closing title track. “Arguing with nature, when you know you will be wrong,” may be a fool’s errand—singing “Satan’s song,” as Amos suggests—but it’s inevitable in our fallen state. As the guitars and keys swell into a symphonic catharsis worthy of those late-‘60s and ‘70s classic LPs he reveres, Amos acknowledges that “when we begin to dissect the garden/It shuffles all the cards/And we break into a thousand shards.”
It’s best to stay naive and grounded in the moment, Amos finally warns us. But it’s unlikely to play out that way as we struggle, like Del Shannon and Amos—to trust our feelings over our reason. We can at least console ourselves, though, with the salve of beautiful music like In the Garden—a reminder of the idyllic state we yearn for, whether it ever existed or not.