Strong instrumentals with a weak core
Domestic violence, emotional abuse, the death of a grandparent, post-traumatic stress disorder and a Shoshone taking revenge for the horrific treatment of her people. You can make art out of anything, but an interesting subject doesn’t instantly make an album great. Emily Scott Robinson performed these topics excellently on her second album The traveling thanks, leaving his last record, American mermaid, disadvantaged. It also sounds good, but the writing is not as efficient and risky as its predecessor.
The only consistent part of this record is the beauty of the music. Aside from the crackling drums on “Things You Learn the Hard Way,” every acoustic pick, violin beat, and steel pedal roar sounds beautifully. From the harmonies sustaining “Old Gods” to the final collage of bass, pedal steel and organ on “Every Day in Faith”, there is hardly anything to complain about when it comes to the quality of the instrumentals.
Robinson is not the most expressive singer, or at least not the one who is at her best when she lets go. Her haunted and fragile childbirth is better suited to mysterious and understated pieces like “The Dress”. The protagonist of “Let ’em Burn”, bemoaning everything she threw in the hopes of being a happy housewife, could have come to life had there been an intense final crescendo, and the songwriting for uninspiring piano and Robinson’s restraint don’t do it any favors. Likewise, “Cheap Seats”, a celebration of its success, begins to show promise with more energy and drive than usual. Hook feels like it’s going to explode as she emphasizes her struggles and success in overcoming them, but instead, it stays rather lukewarm and decidedly not festive.
The only true masterpiece on American mermaid is “Hometown Hero,” a story about a soldier returning home, committing suicide, which sends shock waves through his family and community. He emphasizes how worthless patriotic clichés are in the face of a hero’s death, capitalizing on his inability to sell elation. The mundane, domestic details of the second verse about what the wife and children were doing when he pulled the trigger sells the horror of the act better than any description of blood or blood.
It is a pity that such details do not appear more American mermaid. There are many standard checklist structures on “Old North State” and “Things You Learn the Hard Way” that Robinson should overcome. “If Trouble Comes a Lookin” is a positively framed song about a lonely affair, but it would have been more effective if it hadn’t made its point clear in the last verse as a PSA. None of the songs have the same thematic weight as “Hometown Hero”, and other tempting songs like “Let ’em Burn” are too sketchy. Maybe others will connect to these songs, but after the greatness of The traveling thanks, there is no place for a “maybe”.