Emma Ruth Rundle Delivers Another Masterpiece With “On Dark Horses”

My favorite album from 2016 was Emma Ruth Rundle’s Marked for Death. My favorite album from 2018 will be Emma Ruth Rundle’s On Dark Horses. I say this with confidence because it’s that good. It’s so heavy and beautiful, with emotion and intensity oozing out of every note. Nobody else I’ve heard is making music that is this immersive with such a balance of intimacy and raw power.

Rundle stands alone at the intersection of about 30 different musical genres. Sometimes she sounds like dream pop, other times she’s metal, or alternative rock, or post-rock. She often gets called folk, which I kind of get, but it just makes me think that it’s futile to try to describe her in simple genre buzzwords. It’s music that resists easy labels because nobody else has ever made it before. There are a lot of reference points and influences, clearly, but I consider her a true original with no real comparisons. She sounds like everything else and nothing else at the same time.

Rundle’s arrival at this distinct sound was one of my favorite parts of Marked for Death: more than any artist I’m a fan of, she naturally evolved her style from record to record until reaching what felt like a pinnacle. At the time, I was tempted to call it her masterpiece, and the only thing that stopped me was the thought that she was possibly capable of topping it. With On Dark Horses, she has.

Like her last album, On Dark Horses is all about the slow burn. The songs are methodically paced, which creates space for Rundle to do what she does best: create a mesmerizing atmosphere with her guitar. Her songs tend to simmer and then boil over, the quiet verses giving way to loud choruses and powerful dramatic climaxes. This is basic alternative rock quiet-loud stuff, but the way Rundle executes it feels very different. It never feels like a formula; it’s just the natural path the songs go down as Rundle expresses herself. She balances the quiet and loud aspects of her sound perfectly, creating maximum catharsis in every song.

As a singer, Rundle has the versatility to match her guitar. She and her instrument are always intertwined, and she is capable of singing lovely quiet songs, like “Races,” and also belting out some massive rock choruses like the radio-ready hook on “Dead Set Eyes.” It’s crazy that a few years ago, she was doing instrumental music or burying her voice under layers of guitar. Now she is singing with confidence and seems to know how good she is. That never quite manifests itself in conventional rock frontperson swagger, because that isn’t her style, but it’s a feeling that I get listening to it. If the non-music story of Marked for Death was her finding her sound, the story of On Dark Horses is her expanding on it with complete self-assuredness.

That confidence also translates to her lyrics, which may be the biggest shift from her last album. The words on On Dark Horses are more direct and tangible while retaining the poetic ambiguity that they’ve always had. They also play off some of the expectations formed by Marked for Death, which possibly led some to pigeonhole her as another in a line of tormented doom-and-gloom songwriters. “Light Song” is a love song about her husband (who sings and plays on this album) while “Darkhorse” is an encouraging song to her sister, with the lyric “in the wake of weak beginnings, we can still stand high.” Of course, this album still isn’t peppy or upbeat by any stretch of the imagination, but there is more nuance in it than it might get credit for.

But really, I’m not all that concerned with breaking down the lyrics and trying to figure out the “meaning,” because I think the power of Rundle’s music is in its gray areas and the way it washes over the listener without compelling them to feel a specific way. It fits Rundle’s whole style, which exists outside of all of these artificial borders that get ascribed to artists, where they’re expected to fit into certain invisible categorizable boxes. Over her last couple albums, she has created her own genre, and right now it’s my favorite.

Look What You Made Me Do

Last week I decided to drive to work downtown instead of taking the light rail because it was a Friday night on a long weekend and I figured there would be light traffic at most. Minutes later, I’m waiting in a line of cars just to get into downtown and I realize something horrible is happening. I look out the window and see an endless line of semi trucks outside of U.S. Bank Stadium emblazoned with Taylor Swift’s face. She’s staring at me, judging me, while she makes me late for work.

It is a fitting incident because Swift is the one pop star I can’t seem to get away from. While I am generally like a 90-year-old man when it comes to being up on current pop music because I just don’t care, Swift sticks in my mind more than I’d like to admit. I have an entire list of grievances towards her: she was born a day before me so I always hear about her birthday on the eve of mine, my college roommate played one of her albums non-stop, and I absolutely despise her music in an active way despite knowing I shouldn’t have an opinion on it. I hate her, in a weird way I kind of admire her, but more than anything, I fear her.

As I type this, I am terrified of Taylor Swift. Because I know that if any massive pop artist were to ever find a random blog post like this and sue me for slander, set her fans on me, or possibly pay to have me killed, it would be her. Nobody in the music industry is more cutthroat and ruthless than Taylor Swift. I believe her life ambition is to make every single person on earth a fan of hers, and she’ll squash anyone who stands in her way like a bug. She once put her music back on Spotify just to get people to listen to her instead of Katy Perry’s new album. Cursory research indicates that she and Perry have “mended their friendship,” but it’s likely just a prelude to Swift’s final unexacted revenge.

Much has been made of Swift’s penchant for writing vengeful songs at various exes and the general sense of neediness that comes out in her lyrics. I view it all as an extension of her weird pathology that requires everyone to love her. While most pop stars have no interest in me listening to their music, Swift badly wants me on her side. Even in the face of massive popularity, she remains obsessed with her “haters” and she writes lyrics about boyfriends who like “indie records that are much cooler than mine.” No success she achieves will ever be enough to satisfy her ambition and ego. A more warmhearted person than I could probably have sympathy for Swift and her inability to be satisfied with anything, but I find everything she does too grating to have any sense of compassion.

The Swift empire isn’t built on any kind of musical ability, but on a carefully curated brand image and the presentation of the character Taylor Swift to the public. Her business acumen is far more interesting than her music, which I find to be dull even by pop music standards. It gets overlooked because Swift is a cute young woman, so people underestimate her and make the sexist assumption that a bunch of men are probably controlling her career. But I think much of Swift’s success is due to her own knowledge of how to play the pop music game and her ability to take advantage of people who underestimate her. She is always in control of her own narrative, and every move she makes is calculated.

The moment that always sticks out is at that one Video Music Awards, when Kanye West stomped all over Taylor Swift’s moment, setting forth the narrative that Kanye is an egotistical dick and Swift was the put-upon and maligned girl next door. You’ll never convince me that this wasn’t a scripted plan, executed like a professional wrestling angle, and it influenced the way people perceived both celebrities. Swift has spent the rest of her career playing off that image of the nice girl who always gets mistreated, partly because it blandly appeals to the most people possible.

It’s fitting that one of Swift’s most famous songs is “Blank Space,” because that’s kind of what she is as a musician. Her music is apolitical, it doesn’t inspire the imagination, and it doesn’t really show any kind of prodigious musical skill. It’s just a series of sounds that exist to advance Swift’s image and narratives about herself. It’s an approach that I find utterly loathsome and antithetical to everything that makes me love music, but I have some begrudging respect for how Swift doesn’t even pretend that her music is about anything but making money. If the concept of capitalism became human and pursued a career in music, it would take all the same steps that Swift has.

Swift’s ability to become one of the most popular musicians on earth while possessing little to no musical talent is a testament to her true genius as a marketer and businesswoman. Maybe this is a misanthropic viewpoint, but I don’t think the actual music really matters anymore when it comes to being a pop star. It’s all about marketing yourself, having an image, and probably paying certain people to do certain things. Once you’ve established a fanbase, you can do pretty much do whatever the hell you want in today’s era of creepy, cult-like fandoms, and through years of shrewd machinations, Swift has built an army of people who will defend anything she does, even if it’s “borrowing” a hook from Right Said Fred.

Swift understands all of this because she’s smart, and she’s figured out that success in today’s climate isn’t about music. The songs I heard from her last album were so half-assed that for a moment I almost thought it was some kind of Lou Reed anti-art thing. But it’s more Swift realizing that all she needs to do is get the internet buzzing for her, positively or negatively, and that means having some vaguely controversial lyrics and tinkering with her image/persona, not having actual good songs. All of her detractors, including me, got their zingers about those songs in on social media, but as always, it was Swift who had the last laugh: Reputation was the best-selling album of 2017, she sold out both of those shows at U.S. Bank Stadium, and she made me late for work.

 

Naomi Osaka Meets Her Hero

For those of us who enjoy sports because of the drama and the real life characters, there hasn’t been a better event in recent years than last weekend’s U.S. Open final. In one corner, there was Naomi Osaka, an emerging phenom who bulldozed through the tournament to make her first Grand Slam final. In the process, she won the hearts of many with her endearingly awkward and funny press conferences and post-match interviews that resonated with me in particular as a fellow mumbly weird person.

In the other, there was Serena Williams, looking for her first major win since giving birth and also looking to tie Margaret Court’s all-time Grand Slams record. Serena is an incredible athlete, but a little harder to relate to, in that she’s just so damn good and has reached this level where she feels almost more like a god of tennis than a real person.

Osaka is a big fan of Williams and grew up watching her play. When Tom Rinaldo interviewed her after the semi-finals, she admitted what was driving her was that she really wanted to play Serena. That’s followed by one of my favorite sports interview moments in a long time: Rinaldi asks if she has any message to send to Serena, clearly teeing her up for some sort of controversial trash talk or at least friendly banter. Osaka freezes up a bit and just blurts out “I love you!” and then laughs as she realizes how weird it is that she just said that to her opponent.

Not exactly the most intimidating message to send, but that’s what makes Osaka special. And it set the stage for a final that I figured would be competitive, and also a lot of fun as we got to see Osaka take on her idol on one of the biggest stages imaginable. It didn’t quite work out like that. I couldn’t watch the match because I was going into work, and when I arrived, people had it on TV and they were doing the post-match ceremony, everyone was crying, the crowd was booing, I couldn’t tell who won, and the whole thing just looked like a mess.

I got informed that there was a lot of controversy, and later watched the video of Serena’s meltdown, which is really unlike almost anything I’ve seen in sports. Verbally abusing the officials is a time-honored tradition in all sports, but usually it’s a brief thing and then everyone moves on and keeps playing. This just kept on going for what felt like forever, and got increasingly heated and personal.

Serena’s actions have predictably become a lightning rod for takes and debate, mostly overshadowing the match itself. I still don’t really know what to make of it. My kneejerk reaction was that it felt like Serena was way out of line and unprofessional, and just from a standpoint of trying to win the match, she should have dropped it. But Serena is also in a situation I can’t even fathom: she’s an incredible athlete fighting for a huge win and feels like it’s not only being taken from her, but that her reputation is being maligned in the process. So that makes me empathize with her even if I can’t fully justify her actions. And then there’s this referee, who is getting abused by Serena for like 10 straight minutes when I feel like he was just trying to do his job. Maybe he sucks at his job and made a mistake, but does that warrant this type of reaction from a player? I have no idea about any of this. I just laugh at anyone who has a really confident take on what happened, because to me there are so many gray areas and nuances that it’s impossible to judge.

The only thing I’m confident about is that this was an ugly, bad thing that happened. And of course, Osaka was caught in the middle of it. I found the entire thing incredibly poignant from her perspective. She gets to play her hero, who she has put on this pedestal, and then stands across from the court as she has this really human, fallible moment where she just loses it. She beats her hero, but it doesn’t happen in the triumphant way she had imagined, as the match is just a backdrop for what’s happening between Serena and the official. Then she has this trophy celebration, a moment she’s dreamed of, and there’s boos and awkwardness, her hero is hugging her, telling the fans not to boo, and everything is just overwhelming and weird. I don’t know if there has been a more bittersweet moment in sports recently. I was simultaneously happy and heartbroken for her.

I feel even worse for Osaka when I realize that, deep down, I’m really enjoying all of this. The narrative dork in me can’t help but think that this is an amazing story that nobody would have ever written this way if it were fiction. A big reason why I love sports is that you get these really powerful, meaningful moments that surpass what the human imagination is capable of thinking of.