Emily Wells‘ third album is not an easy one to drop into. Like her previous records, The Symphonies: Dreams Memories & Parties, and Mama, Promise is dense, at times impenetrable and often dream-like. While it’s not exactly inaccessible, it’s certainly not commercial. Wells herself has said that it’s the sort of album that people have to invest time into listening to it. For those who do so, they’ll discover an album of quite magnificent beauty.
Promise seems like a step forward from Mama, in the best possible way. While she’s still taking elements from folk, blues and hip-hop and melding them all together, there’s a new dreamlike quality to many of the songs, much of them coated with this indefinable sense of sadness. Opening track Los Angeles is a prime example, reminiscent of Björk in its otherworldly melancholy, a choral beauty that takes a full seven and a half minutes to completely unfold.
There’s a tension that Wells beautifully exploits, a yearning for something or someone that’s painted throughout these songs. It’s in the way Wells sings “Los Angeles….I’m burning for you” in the aforementioned opening track, or the way her voice cracks on I Dream Of China when she sings over and over again “I want..I need..I want..I need” while the sumptuous orchestration engulfs her.
The instrumentation is one of the most impressive things about Promise – as on her previous albums, Wells plays most of the instruments, and even multi-tracks her voice to create a choral effect. Take It Easy is the best example of this: a powerfully building ballad featuring Wells’ plaintive violin almost being overpowered by tribal-sounding drums. Pack Of Nobodies is more hard-edged, perhaps the song most obviously influenced by Wells’ love of hip-hop, while the beautiful Don’t Use Me Up hints at more spiritual matters: “we went down to the river to be baptised” runs one line, and there’s mention of the Devil and Jesus.
Come To Me is another highlight, beginning as a languid hymn dominated by Wells’ violin before slowly transforming into a more celebratory affair as the drums kick in. Richard is the record’s most moving track, an elegiac tribute to Richard Nichols, the manager of The Roots who died in 2014. “Gonna say my prayers for you… say them every night… I want to live” runs the pivotal line.
Wells’ voice is almost as impressive as her skills as a multi-instrumentalist – there’s still touches of Lana Del Rey (especially in the closing Light Is Drainin’) in her impassioned croon, although comparisons can also be drawn to the likes of Björk, Joanna Newsom and, at times, Lykke Li. It’s a voice full of passion and emotion, but never one that overshadows the stately beauty of her songs.
Some people may find Promise a bit too impenetrable – it certainly won’t be sound-tracking any parties in the next few months, and occasionally songs like Adagio become a bit too dirge-like to properly connect. Yet Wells is an immense talent, and for those willing to put the time in, there’s so much to enjoy in these dreamlike baroque-pop numbers.