By Hannah Wisterman
Artist: Emma Ruth Rundle
Album: On Dark Horses
Release Date: September 14, 2018
Label: Sargent House
A piece of my heart has belonged to Emma Ruth Rundle ever since I heard 2014’s “Shadows of my Name.” The track rang of Chelsea Wolfe’s Unknown Rooms, with its hypnotic acoustic guitar and perfect tortured-girl vocals, and God, do I love a good dark folk woman. The album cover for that particular release, Some Heavy Ocean, showed her half-collapsed on a beach, sunlight passing through her hair and casting a reddish glow on her face. Another of her albums, Marked for Death, shows her curled in her seat, hair tangled, scowling at the camera. And most recently, with On Dark Horses, we see her clutching a toy horse with a tattooed hand and pushing it in front of her face, the image covered in grain. Rundle has the market cornered on the broodiest of moods, and it works for her—with an arched eyebrow and a distant gaze, Rundle promises she’ll stir up something cold and heavy in your heart.
It’s no surprise, then, that the aforementioned On Dark Horses seems to summon up rainstorms right from the start. Driving, rolling drums (like thunder) have long been an ERR staple, and album opener “Fever Dreams” is no exception; a heavy kickdrum leads the way into the record, overlaid with Rundle’s full-bodied, timbered voice. It’s a track laced with panic, fear, borderline hysteria: “A life rent completely/release me away from fever dreams here.” It’s one of the most musically involved tracks on the album. As the bridge bursts into the chorus with a rip of guitar, you can picture one of the titular dark horses bolting and bucking in the rain.
Important to note: this wild, frantic energy and imagery wasn’t necessarily present on Rundle’s previous album, Marked for Death. Even its wildest track (“Protection”) got its sting from big guitar grinds, whereas On Dark Horses goes for cleaner, crisper, more fleshed-out melody arcs (“Control”). In this way, On Dark Horses isn’t as dark as previous releases, but that’s not at all to say that Rundle has shifted tones or gone for a lightweight sound. By all means, she’s still heavy as folk comes. This album just has a bit more of a breath of life, a bit more of a pronounced punch.
For instance, on “Light Song,” a personal favorite of mine, Rundle’s voice stands on the shoulders of Jaye Jayle’s Evan Patterson—impressive because Rundle has never used features in her solo work, and because no other male singer could have elevated her voice in quite the same way. Patterson’s ultra-deep, ultra-gravelly voice fits like a puzzle piece with Rundle’s more keening, yearning tone. Listeners might already know how perfect they sound together from their collaborative EP The Time Between Us. But “Light Song” feels less like a collaboration and more like Rundle using Patterson to build the world of the album: a world of longing and turmoil, where relationships are the only thing Rundle can cling to for survival. “Crown my love with flowers, I crown my love with light/To lay back in the water dressed up all in white/And it feels/And it feels light,” Rundle sings, a sharp contrast to her “life rent completely” in “Fever Dreams.”
But relationships mean so much more than “Light Song’s” wedding imagery and gothic romance. “Apathy on the Indiana Border” reflects on grief and change. “Darkhorse” constructs a beautiful image of sisters finding strength after trauma. Album closer “You Don’t Have to Cry” is probably the sweetest and most uplifting Rundle has ever been, as she attempts to lift a friend out of the darkness: “All the prettiest worlds, don’t cover them all up in your mind/As you paint, as it should’ve been, you were meant to love/You could not live without it.” It’s one of the only songs, if not the only song Rundle has written for and about someone else rather than her own life.
That in itself reflects a larger piece of the album’s story. In an interview with Sargent House, Rundle said that On Dark Horses came out of a more relaxed headspace than Marked for Death and with more assistance from other artists. With that in mind, it follows that the album would feel both fuller and less emotionally draining. It almost feels a little more grown-up—Rundle delegating some of the guitar writing to her fellow artists, and as a result making an album that feels less like she’s in a chasm of loneliness and pain.
Emma Ruth Rundle knows her image—and it’s not one that’s fabricated, it’s very much an authentic, visceral truth. Rundle is dark and brooding and deep, and she’s only getting better. You can catch the queen at work when she comes through Dallas and Austin in December.