Emma Ruth Rundle‘s last album, Marked for Death, was a sonic and emotional catharsis that continues to tremble walls and souls. It is Rundle’s masterpiece and one of the great records of not just 2016 but this decade. Trying to follow up a generational LP is a challenging endeavor that many before have fallen short, but Rundle, with the assistance of producer Kevin Ratterman, matches MfD‘s fervor and intensity on the equally foreboding yet devastatingly beautiful On Dark Horses.
Whereas most artists treat albums as separate entities, On Dark Horses continues where Marked for Death left off. The latter concluded with the emotionally searing “Real Big Sky”, on which Rundle comments about the hopelessness of mortality. These feelings of despair and lost are transformed into a sense of perpetual confusion, as revealed on the piercing “Fever Dreams”. The atmosphere is stark yet gripping, and through the plodding rhythms and the scorching guitars Rundle somberly cries out:
“Fear, a friend, without context it’s reeling
You’re never going to pay enough to do right.
The veil is a thread and now it’s raising
Like the tension of a string that just plays the note high.
And if I ever really make it out,
It’s all this waking world that drags me down.”
Unlike Marked for Death, however, Rundle does not stay stationary. Instead, most of album recounts different characters’ restlessness and constant pursuit to find an escape or, as told on “Control”, take ownership of what they can. A desert mysticism envelops the track, as heavy rhythms and reverb-drenched guitars fill the air. Rundle, meanwhile, slowly reveals the battle raging inside her, but she’s determined to prove that there is “a silver line, nobody born bad, no twin of mine left standing”.
Rundle then casts listeners into the far reaches of the Mojave Desert on the grueling yet breathtaking “Darkhorse”. Instead of a lone wanderer, Rundles introduces two weary travelers. They are sisters, who are seeking to find their legs again and get over the “darkwater horizon”. Who are seeking a way out from their shared traumatic past. Rundle’s songwriting – and the imagery it creates – is magnificent, as she mixes poetry with cinema. The chorus, in particular, is distressing yet triumphant:
“It’s the darkhorse you give legs to, no one else can ride.
In the wake of strange beginnings, we can still stand high.”
The more solemn “Races” offers a slight reprieve from the bone-jarring, Gothic rockers. A haunting tone, however, still lingers with the dissonant, crystalline guitar humming in the background and Rundle’s voice delivered in a methodical and introspective fashion. Her tale is that of a man who is “still the king of my crown” yet drowns himself in a past love and imprisons himself within the night. He’s a gunslinger whose fired his last bullets. A gambler without coin. On the flip side is the woman he left behind, and her story is told on the slow-building epic, “Dead Set Eyes”. The multiple guitar blasts are seismic, providing the perfect canvas for Rundle’s aching story of a woman who now feels like “just a slave to a taker, to a man, to a need”.
Even when Rundle tackles a common theme, she turns it on its head, which she does on “Light Song”. A love ballad like no other, Rundle unleashes a gritty, cinematic, and mythical escapade. With Jaye Jayle frontman Evan Patterson joining her, Rundle beckons for her lover to “wade out in the water”. She yearns to be reunited with the one she has long loved, but Patterson’s smokey, deadpan baritone is shrouded in uncertainty. Will this union of light and dark, of the sun and the moon transpire?
Rundle goes political on the stunning “Apathy on the Indiana Border”. Commencing with a gorgeous but brooding soundscape, Rundle’s voice and lyrics are filled with desperation, anger, and memory. Her tale recalls the families that were ripped apart recently as ICE agents implemented a no-questions policy of arresting illegal immigrants.
“Once was a wild, once was a smile barking at the moon.
All across the body the lines of both expressions are stationed now for real.
The glaze of tried companions have built upon the senses so dense it cannot feel.”
The album comes to a close with the tranquil and emotional “You Don’t Have to Cry”. The instrumentation is light and delicate with the exception of the occasional glimmer of the chiming guitar. Remorse and reflection fill Rundle’s voice, as she memorializes all the young people whose lives were taken too soon because they were different.
“Wish they wouldn’t come back for my boy
Dressed as a girl dressed all in colors,
And how you will sing to them and how your verses fall.
And how there’s a Roman candle
Burning just for you.”
Rundle, too, is different. She is crafting bold art that is bleak and brooding, yet devastatingly beautiful. More importantly, she is telling stories that must be told and heard. Even in the most terrible moments and in the darkest of times, she finds something from which strength can be obtained and lessons can be learned. She finds the pain that inflicts us all, yet she encourages us to not simply run away but to be the remedy to the infliction. To realize that we are not just riding On Dark Horses, but we are the dark horses.
Rundle is currently on tour. She is in the US until September 28th and then she will embark on a 6-week tour across Europe, beginning October 6th. She returns stateside on November 30th for 13 concerts. Tour dates and information are here.
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