Take a listen to Montrealers’ biggest hits. Sultry, sweet, candied disco pop has smothered the streets. Perhaps it’s the glitter that arises on top of a fresh snowfall during golden hour -icy sharp and blue- or perhaps it’s the first sight of spring’s sun that gets our feet dancing.
Regardless, it’s felt by all, including local singer-songwriter Emmett McCleary. Hailing from Boston, Massachusetts, Emmett has seen three years of Montreal, from snow to sun. During an interview in mid-May, Emmett and I talked coasts. A true East Coaster, Emmett has always searched for warm textures in music amidst the cold places he finds himself in. Disco DOES save… we’ve heard it before.
However, our conversation soon turned to time. We talked 1970’s vs. today’s millennials. Emmett noted that his recent album, released on his bandcamp site just a week before on May 12, 2017, was heavily influenced by this same candied disco pop he was hearing in Montreal. He notes that for him, both the 1970’s and today exist in an air of political distrust and material excess with a funny dash of unfettered optimism. Perhaps the desire for warm disco oozes its way into this optimism; a warm tune to the coldest of winters.
Before interviewing Emmett, I had just finished watching Mike Mills’s 2016 film Twentieth Century Women. Here I found 1970’s bright, bleached, redhead dream-woman Abbie (Greta Gerwig) attempting to teach young Jamie about the trials of love and life in the modern age. Amid sexy sad neon pink, she whispers, “Whatever you think your life is going to be like, just know, it’s not gonna be anything like that.” Here, and throughout the rest of the film Abbie captures the spirit of the 1970’s; a thick and gooey immersion in a present that contains within it no predictable future and a more than questionable past.
This same spirit and sexy sad pink swoons, warming listeners in Emmett McCleary’s latest album release, There’s A Better Something, taking its name from a phrase his father said in conversation remembering his thoughts and feelings of the 70’s. Like Abbie and longingly lost Jamie, the tone of There’s A Better Something finds itself stuck between before and after. It may be that exact and that comes to haunt McCleary in his work; the inability to reconcile what inspires him, what ails him, and what exactly comes out of the process of music writing before and after a creation. It therefore came as no surprise when McCleary shared that he looked to artists like Joni Mitchell and her 1974 Court and Spark for guidance in writing There’s A Better Something. Mitchell’s “Help Me” off Court and Spark sweetly (and quite aptly) sings “Help me/I think I’m falling/In love too fast/It’s got me hoping for the future/And worrying about the past.”
McCleary noted that this album is really about dealing with depression, it’s a deeply personal album. This can be felt in the smallest to most deliberate of choices, one being to shed his stage name Easter that he had previously recorded solo work with for his actual given name. The cover is a photo edited and taken of him by his friends. The album strikes even greater personal notes in its lyrics. Emmett notes that his music today is like Elliott Smith’s XO but with “worse songwriting.” He sheds stories of various loves, writing on “Caroline,” “stay when I’m shaking and it’s late in the night.” The twinkling, blanketing instrumentals of “Lullabies” are followed by some of the harshest, heaviest sounds on the album in “Twine and Straw” where McCleary talks of promises untrue.
The album finishes strong, a compliment of poppy brightness with heavy acoustic, reminiscent of the album as a whole, to a lyric-less end. Here, it is as if the warmth that struggled to make itself evident throughout the rest of the album has finally pushed through. It reminds me of one of the first times I discussed music with Emmett. It was a loud party, and a few of us found ourselves being played Brian Wilson’s solo 1967 “Surf’s Up” in a room to the side. The Beach Boys were blazing hot just like the bodies and the feelings outside, and it was here amongst one of the earliest pioneers of sunny dream rock, among one of Emmett’s favorite bands, that a few of us found our better somethings.