“What is my place in this world?” asks Florist’s Emily Sprague a minute into a record which, in its title, removes her from the Florist moniker and places her in solitude: Emily Alone. This is certainly Sprague’s album and her own solitude, but it’s impossible not to lose oneself in empathy, in the sensation of solitude expressed. “I walk and I read, I spend time in the sea, and nothing brings clarity to what makes me, me”. She seems to answer herself, as though she were among the listening audience: “Emily, just know that you’re not as alone as you feel in the dark”. This constant rally of solace as both a catharsis and as something defeating and desolate makes Florist’s third album as tender and honest a portrait of loneliness as you’ll find this year. It’s an album that lights a candle in the darkness, which chooses to unbury as much self-love as it chooses to find beauty in the natural world outside of ourselves.
The album’s second piece, “Moon Begins”, plays with a reversal. The warm guitar cycle sounds as though it’s emerged from the same instrument as Sprague’s careful vocal. “Death will come, then a cloud of love”; a peculiar, seemingly backward, but precise way to observe grief. It’s a true sentiment, if not one that’s usually unfelt by those grieving. The song sees death from the outside, still retaining the patient sorrow that allows us to believe our narrator is the one experiencing loss. The next track, “Celebration”, begins with a similar guitar loop, but is soon accompanied by what sounds like a droning cello and other hints of whimsical ambiance. The song’s most prominent inclusion is its spoken-word intro, which momentarily sets aside the naturist poetry of the songs around it for what could be taken as a diary entry. The lines are as cryptic as the sung verse, but they’re so textural that they come off like playful observations Sprague has made throughout the day, commenting on everything from her dirty blonde hair to the rust of old trucks. “Sitting in loss like a bean bag chair”, the final line of the passage, is at first cute but seems altogether fitting the longer the image sits. Emily’s psychosis, which she herself describes as “plant-induced”, is observed in the sung chorus. She hopes that, in the case of her mind being lost, it’s returned to the elements of our earth. Then, a hopeful, tearjerking change of the guitar elevates the song to its third and best movement: a sunlit, bittersweet song-within-a-song that would be snug in a playlist of Big Thief tracks.
“I Also Have Eyes” echoes the opening track’s simultaneous removal from and insistence of the first person. Much of the song feels as though it were hummed under Emily’s breath in whatever silent, calm terrain the album emerged, singing through the tasks of her day, until, as though we’re watching her in a film, Sprague becomes cognizant towards our viewership. The song finds Emily searching for herself in others; she looks someone in the eyes and thinks of what lies behind her own, wondering if what she’s seen and lived is hers and if those memories are in any way concrete. She finalizes the song by stepping into our minds, interloping her imparted knowledge on us with the experiences that illustrate the entirety of our universe. The beauty of Emily Alone comes in how large it can make the most minimal of folk songs seem. Much of the record feels like stargazing, beholding the beauty and size of everything and yet coming to terms with how sparse it really is. “Ocean Arms” further contextualizes this, and underscores much of the album’s thematic device of half-certainty. For a moment, Sprague is elated as she stares at the ocean. In another, the same sight is devastating.
“M” brings a sea change to the record: instead of a rhythmic guitar, we’re met by crinkling footsteps and a piano that sounds built for lullabies. When the guitar returns on “Now”, even after one of the LP’s shorter songs, its sound has turned completely anew, as though it’s reemergence is not from one song to another but from winter to spring.
The album’s only true interlude, “Still”, reinstates Sprague’s spoken word, and welcomes the album’s final stretch, reflecting on everything that’s prefaced it. Emily speaks again on the ocean as she has throughout the album, but here she more harshly questions its motives. Her final comparisons bring the album to its greatest clarity. Sprague notices that as the tide speaking to the shore reminds her of her own conversations with death, or even more chillingly, her conversations with us. As she goes on to note, we aren’t listening, just standing still. On “Shadow Bloom”, rain makes a return, though this particular rain feels hopeful, washing over the loneliness of the same storms before it. It’s less explicitly poetic, featuring Emily running again through the beautiful, hospitable mundane, but it seems to find Emily moving away from the feelings expressed in “Still”. The record’s closing track is a brilliant piece of punctuation, “Today I’ll Have You Around” finally welcomes someone, or something, into the album’s otherwise lonely space. It’s unforced and bright. To hear the song alongside its starting point feels like miles in distance.
Emily Alone is at once one of the year’s best folk albums and one of the finest books of poetry in recent memory. It feels plucked out of a clear horizon but is equally dependent on its artist and on our mutual understanding of the artist’s role as a songwriter and storyteller. The album is constructed deliberately and carefully as one of the half-read novels Emily alludes to, but could also be mistaken as off-the-cuff, performed out in the cool wind of nature without the intent of closer reading. In any case, it’s a small album that imparts an ocean of thoughtful idiosyncrasies, as delicate and soothing to hear as it is moving to truly listen to and understand.