Emilie Simon: The Big Machine (of Disappointment)
Allow me to open up this review with a simple question directed towards Ms. Simon: Who are you and what have you done with Emilie? While it may seem a little ridiculous, I say it with a hint of seriousness and perhaps a little heartbreak. I have been a dedicated fan of Simon for a while now and have grown to consider her one of my favorite female singer/songwriters ever. So when I heard that she had released a new album, I must admit that I was ridiculously happy. That soon changed once I actually listened to the album.
While Simon has earned a massive following in Europe, she is a relative newcomer to the American music scene. Since the start of her career in 2003 she has released six albums, one of which was the soundtrack to Luc Jacquet’s documentary “La Marche de l’empereur”. However, for the American release of the movie, the soundtrack was re-recorded with another singer so Simon would not get to break into the American spotlight yet. She has also earned three “Victoire de la Musique” awards and has been touring since the release of her latest album “The Big Machine.” The album is said to be inspired by New York City, her home since 2007, and the impact of her surroundings is clear when comparing her newest release to her previous albums.
Simon has a style that can usually be described best as “Electro-pop with a dash of Bjork”, but her latest album has strayed from her computer-driven sound and ventured more towards a piano based style. She has commented on recent interviews that this is the first time that she composes her songs first on a piano instead of her computer. Needless to say, when the first song “Rainbow” started to play, I was shocked to hear such a different style and immediately noticed the lack of haunting melodies that so characterized her previous albums. The majority of the songs have a sound that I can only describe as “Indie-pop”, for lack of a better term.
It seems her time playing in New York nightclubs has influenced her songwriting. The majority of the songs can be easily played live due to their lack of a strong electronic base. Instead of focusing the songs on the beats, distortion and effects, she concentrated on the piano and how it compliments her voice. Possibly as an ode to the inspiration behind her album, she has a track titled “Chinatown” with heavy bass and a flirtatious singing style that can be very catchy. Later on, and completely out of nowhere, follows “Rocket to the Moon.” At first, I thought maybe there had been some kind of mistake and that I was listening to another artist. A sudden blast of jazz came forth and threw me way off guard. The song is easy to sing along to and I must admit it’s fun to join her as she playfully extends the word “moon” near the end. It’s a little bit of a shock to hear if you expect the typical Simon style.
I can’t say that the entire album was disappointing since there were a few high points, such as “Dreamland” with its heavy synthesizer, fantastic keyboard, and imaginative lyrics. I particularly enjoyed “The Devil at the Door” for its gorgeous singing, military drums, and dramatic ending. The track “Fools Like Us” has a very strong piano in the background that often reminded me of The Dresden Dolls, only much more delicate. With this song I got a little bit of the French style that I was craving for most of the album, so I was happy. The last track, “This Is Your World”, is a simple enough song but with a powerful message. Simon used a choir to emphasize over and over again “This is your world” while also stating “It’s a big machine/for a little world/You gotta shut it down/You gotta let it burn.” It’s a beautiful piece and as always her writing is impeccable at getting her point across. The song ends with a glimmer of hope for the future but the knowledge that “The machine keeps rolling on.”
As a fan listening to this album and after deeply falling in love with her previous work, I do feel as if a huge shift has taken place in Simon. Her musical style has changed drastically and I believe has to do with her aiming towards a different audience now. Her previous albums were gorgeous masterpieces, with angelic vocals and a strong electronic foundation. Now we are faced with a new Simon focusing more on the American tastes and styles. As I continue to listen to the album, I find myself lowering my guard and enjoying it for what it is: an album inspired by New York City. It makes sense that the sound produced from such a different environment and muse would be drastically different from what she has done before. Regardless of this change, her devoted fans will very likely stick by her and anxiously await what she has in store for us next.