Emily Reo Only You Can See It
April 12th, 2019
Emily Reo imagined a series of humans, alone in movie theatres, watching their lives unfold on the screens. “No one else could see what they saw, or interpret things in the same way,” she explains, reflecting largely on the concept of perception and her song “In Theaters,” the stunning, final track on her forthcoming full-length. “Picture where you've been / only you can see it,” she self-harmonizes, later concluding that “our lives play in empty theaters.”
Only You Can See It is a devastatingly beautiful collection of prismatic pop songs reckoning with the complexity of self-possession. Following the release of her acclaimed 2013 full-length Olive Juice, Reo spent five years writing, recording, arranging, producing and mixing these ten songs—at her apartment in Brooklyn, and at various studios and friends’ homes around New York. It’s her most intricate web of poetry yet, with prismacolor melodies winding through a vast pop vision. Reo employs her classical vocal training more than ever, her sweeping falsetto delivering doubletime verses brimming in metaphor and mesmerizing layered soundscapes alike.
For over a decade, Reo’s vocoder pop songs have played with the space between natural and metallic sounds—with every turn of her voice sounding sweeping, symphonic. Recording and touring independently since the release of 2009’s Minha Gatinha, she’s continuously released a slow drip of pop experiments via artist-operated imprints. On her 2016 single “Spell,” Reo grappled with all-consuming anxiety, numbness and isolation; here, throughout her latest album, with alternating grace and playfulness, she maps out a constellation of lived experiences that brought her back to feeling herself—facing loss, heartbreak, and death, but also fighting for her health and independence.
Reo’s songs have always been imaginative, and here she considers the space between imagination and truth with a heightened sense of tension that seems to have been bubbling under the surface for a lifetime. There are self-combusting soaring synth riffs, sparseness and then engulfing chaos. Melodies that unfurl into melodies (some of which came to her in dreams). On “Candy”, she continues her inquiry into the artificial versus the organic, a song about digitally-facilitated relationships; through robot sounds, she wonders about the confusion of feeling close to someone through a screen, sung from the perspective of someone falling in love with a machine.
“Balloon” is the record’s most patiently unfolding mini-epic, one bursting with the enormous energy of an expanding heart; an ode to intuition and growth. It’s a song that eventually floats upward as Reo’s vocals criss-cross like a hypnotic choir-of-one, meditating on navigating multiple relationships, and the necessity of self-reliance as a prerequisite for them.
These are the first songs that Reo filled out with the help of a live band, multi-instrumentalists Jack Greenleaf and Felix Walworth, adding a visceral energy throughout, with unexpected builds and breaks. Featuring select additional collaborators, namely Warren Hildebrand (Foxes in Fiction) and Julian Fader (Ava Luna, Gravesend Recordings), Reo’s singular vision grew illuminated by additions of live drums, guitar, bass, piano, synth, harp, theremin, and sax.
“Ghosting” is her most personal song to date - as she sings about tracing her anxiety and sobriety, her words are clearer than usual, like a voice that has been yearning to escape. “It outlines my experience with mental illness - depression, anxiety, OCD - and how it made me unable to live even though I was alive,” Reo says. “It’s about feeling trapped inside your mind, not living your life, not knowing if you’re really living, if this is what your life amounts to.” So often, the experiences, anxieties and illnesses that define us aren't visible to anyone else; only you can see it. Later, “Counterspell” is about overcoming the illness she laid out on “Spell”, using the latter track’s repurposed vocals to show “how anything can be reversed.”
In contrast, the buoyant side B opener “Strawberry” feels all the more powerful, a feminist banger about everyday condescension under the gaze of patriarchy, about navigating fragile male egos in music scenes and beyond: “Wish you had earned that PHD! In R-E-S-P-E-C-T! How many girls in this city are getting T-I-R-E-D?” she belts out. Against the backdrop of “Ghosting” and “Counterspell,” it feels like a victory—the thrill of hearing an artist coming into her own voice. Only You Can See It honors what can be the most challenging sight to see: to truly recognize yourself.
10. In Theaters