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.