10 Year Recall: Emery’s I’m Only A Man

The second installment in my “10 Year Recall” series goes to another one of my all-time favorite bands, Emery. The band hails, at least originally, from South Carolina, although they tend to claim Seattle as their hometown, mostly, I’m guessing because they really got their start there. They were heavy players in the so-called screamo movement in the early-to-mid 2000’s, and were also thrust into the pseudo-Christian music scene, first and foremost because of their albums coming out via Tooth & Nail Records. Most of that is a story for another time, however.

My beginnings with the indie/emo/screamo music movements was recounted in part in the lead up to my previous “10 Year Recall” about Anberlin’s Cities, so I won’t go through the entire ordeal again. In Emery’s case, however, I can tell you the first time I ever heard their music as at the same time I discovered the aforementioned Anberlin. I popped Emery’s debut record, The Weak’s End, into a CD player at a Family Christian Stores location in Virginia Beach, VA while I was home for a summer, and immediately had to rush to turn down the guttural screams and crunching guitars of the record’s first track, the (in my opinion, overrated) Emery classic “Walls.” That record never did much for me, though, but it was the follow-up, 2005’s The Question, that made me pay attention to what Emery was up to (and I still list that record as one of my all-time favorites).

(For the record, I now find a lot to like about The Weak’s End, but generally consider it one of the band’s most generic and weakest–pun intended–records.)

The band’s third studio album came out in October of 2007 in the form of I’m Only A Man, and to call the reception to the record mixed might be kind. The album purposely moved further away from the straight heavy rock of The Weak’s End, choosing to use more keyboards, synths, pads and other instruments new to the band’s sonic palette, to diversify the sound. On the whole, fan reception was just as poor as the critics, and the band’s reaction to all that shines through pretty obviously based on what happened in the subsequent releases, 2008 EP When Broken Hearts Prevail and the connected 2009 LP …In Shallow Seas We Sail, which saw the band returning mostly to something closer to their earlier sound (although if you pay close enough attention, you’ll notice they continued to experiment on those albums, too, and have continued to do so).

I, myself, joined the noise of less-than-enthusiastic reviews (although as you can see from the date, I was several months late to the party):

Emery — I’m Only A Man

Emery’s music has often been polarizing, but their latest effort, I’m Only A Man, will prove to be even more separating than ever. It’s an album of truly great moments (“World Away”), but also one that will leave you unsure of what the band is trying to do (“Rock-N-Rule”). Overall, I can’t seem to totally dismiss the album because of the talent I know this band has. If nothing else, I’m Only A Man is an album that you should experience rather than letting someone else tell you what they think. (Feb 21, 2008)

Okay, so this wasn’t my most insightful journalistic moment, but I do think that dearth of language here is rather telling, even if I couldn’t have explained this to you at the time. The fact of the matter is that I really didn’t know what to do with the record at the time. There were weird buzzing noises in one track (“From Crib to Coffin”), strange vocal parts (the intro to “Don’t Bore Us, Get to the Chorus,” an all-time awful song title, by the way), a song that sounded like they ripped themselves off (try to tell me that opening riff “The Party Song” from Man doesn’t sound almost exactly like the riff from The Question‘s opening song “So Cold I Could See My Breath,” go ahead), and other signs of a band that was clearly trying to do something different. At the time, I wasn’t ready, and it doesn’t seem like hardly anyone else was either.

Hindsight being what it is, I have to say that I’m Only A Man has managed to age rather well. First of all, it proved to be rather prescient, as the synth heavy sounds that Emery hints at throughout this album became–for better or worse–the driving force of hardcore/screamo bands that would follow like Attack Attack! and Sleeping With Sirens, among myriad others that would use the sonic space of I’m Only A Man sets up.

Secondly, the songwriting on this album continues to be, for the most part, rather top-notch, an element of the record that I was quick to overlook ten years ago. Hearing the songs in various formats (especially in more laid back, acoustic versions) helps to highlight the quality of the craftsmanship that Matt Carter, Toby Morrell and Devin Shelton brought to the table in terms of writing musical parts and lyrics. The album seems to borrow thematically from another album, namely Pedro the Lion’s 2002 concept record Control, as the ideas of digging oneself into a hole via sexual misconduct is a prevalent theme on both records. The Emery record, however, looks at the issue from a different perspective, as Morrell and Shelton’s lyrics don’t seem to allow the protagonists of their stories to simply shrug off the consequences of their choices. This is interesting since the album’s title feels like an excuse, but upon further listens, it’s easier to see that the title is simply a statement of fact. The lyrics give credence to that idea, and while there are some repetitive moments (the lyricists get enamored with the album’s title as a lyric, even if there is no “title track,” per se), the storytelling is quite good throughout.

In some cases, however, the criticism is probably warranted. You wonder if the band tried too hard to create something “different” that they lost some focus along the way. Many of the elements of the Emery sound are still there (the screaming and guitar tones, especially), but there is a chance that the change in sound was at least partially due to the departure of the band’s bassist after the release of The Question, leaving Carter to hold down most of the on-stage instrumentation, which would explain the move toward pads and tracks to bolster the live show. That said, many of the experiments do end of working, namely the driving intrigue of the album’s closing track, the aforementioned “From Crib to Coffin.” It is strange, no doubt, but it is also clever and climactic; and although different from Anberlin’s “(*Fin),” it proves a similarly satisfying way to close a record.

In the final evaluation, I’m Only A Man is an important part of Emery’s discography. It showed they were capable of trying new things and pushing themselves not to just recreate what had worked on the album before. It was a daring move, but it produced a solid third record and continues to propel the band forward to this day, as they look to produce their 7th album 10 years later.

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