There are more breakup albums out there than can probably be counted at this point, yet the pain and loss of love remains one of the most fascinating topics to explore through music. Artists wouldn’t keep making albums about it if that weren’t the case. Of course writing a breakup album is in itself therapy, a means of dissecting the good and the bad and figuring out just where things went wrong. Scout Niblett appears to know this on her new album It’s Up to Emma, her seventh full length which also turns out to be one of her strongest. Through it’s nine tracks, it traverses the five stages of grief only to come out the other side resilient and empowered once more. Of course it doesn’t necessarily go through those stages in order, which is why the opening track “Gun” is a slow, angry build to a violent end. In a sense it’s about somebody losing their mind over another person’s betrayal, and it’s only emphasized further by distorted, grunge-filtered solo guitar strums and punishing drums. Once we’re dragged into this pit of despair, and essentially following a character that’s difficult to relate to unless you’re a crazy, emotionally unstable person whenever one of your romantic endeavors peters out, there’s the question raised as to why we’d want to take this journey at all. What’s surprising is how this messy relatonship post-mortem slowly changes our perceptions and draws us in despite our reservations. The vulnerability on display via “My Man” sells you this heartbreak by appealing to your empathetic side. This female narrator that Niblett embodies sacrificed everything for this love, and it didn’t work out in the end. We almost want to root for her hopes of rebuilding the failed relationship on “Second Chance Dreams,” but they end up being exactly as the third word of the title suggests. The depression at work in “All Night Long” is harrowing, with pleads to find a way to move past the mental torture of the breakup. The way the guitar and drums interact with one another mirrors those lyrical and vocal cues in such a way that they become the other end of an imaginary conversation.
As It’s Up to Emma spirals towards its inevitable conclusion, “Could This Possibly Be?” comes in like a reality check, pulling us out of this downward spiral to take a step back to better examine exactly why the narrator keeps torturing herself about this guy. It is when she realizes some painful truths about herself that she also finds acceptance on “What Can I Do?”, leading to not necessarily a happy ending to this tumultuous record, but one where there’s a visible light at the end of the tunnel. Beyond the plotline and themes explored on this album, it’s fascinating from an overall instrumental perspective as well. If you’re familiar with previous Niblett records then there’s definitely some familiarity in the sparse blues-style approach she uses here, though this being her first record in 10 years without Steve Albini behind the board there’s a little more polish in the arrangements. The guitars don’t always sound completely scuzzed up, but do retain a certain early ’90s flavor that makes them comparable to that of Cat Power, PJ Harvey, Liz Phair, Nirvana (Unplugged) and Sonic Youth. This is a record that uses silence as a weapon too. Because the narrator is a woman left all alone with her own thoughts and memories of this past relationship, most songs primarily feature a single strummed guitar and vocals, almost definitely performed by Niblett live inside an empty studio. There’s greater power and emotional depth in such an approach, which is practically a requirement here, and the occasional aggressive drums or string section serve only as accoutrements to try and heighten what’s already there. The combination of all these various factors and elements really help make It’s Up to Emma one of Niblett’s most powerful and accessible records to date. Go ahead and put another great breakup album on the big board.