Emika — born in the Czech Republic, raised in England, based in Berlin — makes dance music of imposing originality. She’s fond of telling a story about sound in interviews, one having to do with listening to David Bowie’s “China Girl” at her grandmother’s place as a child and realizing the music “was coming from the cassette player, it didn’t just happen in the air by itself.” Her epiphany doesn’t blow my mind, but it helps me understand why her music is a vastly more satisfying experience when it’s allowed to exist as a whole, as something without an outside. It’s pointless to try to decode her first album using the habitual vocabulary of dance music: It sounds like itself and not like anything else. To really enjoy it, that has to be enough. There are facts out there that make it possible to parcel its parts out, but to interrogate Emika is to ignore what she’s accomplished.
I don’t mean Emika doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, just that a lot of the good stuff happens pre-scrutiny. The bass in here is out of control, shaping the space around the listener subconsciously, establishing a penetrating mood too subtle to distinguish between sadness and menace. The bass seems to preexist the music in such a way that it slips out of cognitive reach, like a topographic map of the ocean floor does to a layman. When she sings on “Common Exhange,” “Double Edge,” and “Drop the Other,” Emika adopts Aaliyah’s breathy patter. Part coo and part gasp, their flimsiness bears the emotional and sonic weight surrounding them. The meaning is out of reach, but the feeling is on the surface.
Other instruments make serious contributions, too — the haunted piano riffs are especially satisfying. Emika handled all production duties on the album herself, and the mix reverberates with a peculiar sense of space. Synths don’t make much of a contribution, and the melodies are elliptical and unresolved. The jackbooted S&M romp that is opener “3 Hours” enjoys misleading you; it’s got a deliberate song structure and makes an overt impact and somehow still feels appropriate in the context of the album. I’d imagine the girlfriends of guys in KMFDM shirts would listen to stuff like “3 Hours” if I was still in middle school; right now it comes off as a smart and uncynical way to fuck with the expectations surrounding you if you’re a female electronic musician.
This is all good. Yet, I find myself getting burned out by the act of reaching into the music — the pleasure fizzles out as I try to differentiate its component parts. The first few times I heard the album, it sounded improbably intimate and fresh. I may have spoiled it temporarily or for good; whatever the case, Emika’s made a very personal album here that succeeds by its own exacting standards. It wouldn’t mean anything if the music wasn’t quality, but better not to rely on anyone other than yourself to tell you if it has broader significance.