Album review: Paula Rae Gibson/Kit Downes – Emotion Machine

by Thomas Blake

In 1964 one of Europe’s most accomplished jazz singers recorded an album with America’s most inventive pianist. It was a strange recording – a mixture of American standards and Swedish folk and pop songs – but in its strangeness lies its appeal, because Waltz For Debby by Monica Zetterlund and Bill Evans showed that the experimental could be palatable, that the weird could be smuggled in under a coat of pretty songs.

Of course, experimentation in 2018 looks a lot different to experimentation in 1964, even in the apparently narrow realm of vocal jazz collaboration. But while the results may be different, the drive to create musical forms that are both novel and enduring remains. It is this creative drive that shapes the new album by singer Paula Rae Gibson and composer/instrumentalist Kit Downes. Gibson is a singularly expressive vocalist – opening track Still distills the breathiness of classic vocal jazz, reducing its phrasing to something that approaches spoken word while Downes’ free-form backdrop resembles a more spacious Arthur Russell.

Piano-based tracks like Strange Dream or Black Hole further dissolve the boundaries of jazz, classical music and even post-rock. Gibson is inspired by Icelandic music, and this shows through in the monochrome shades and icy feel of some of these songs. The overall feeling is one of encroaching darkness and uncertainty. Gibson’s voice on Love On Time (a title which itself both references and undermines classic jazz/blues tropes) becomes an androgynous echo of itself. The whole album, right down to its title, concerns itself with unpredictability, apprehension, dichotomy. Human and machine. Physical and emotional love. Female and male. Seemingly incompatible things are played off against each other, or are put together in uneasy, itchy combinations which dare themselves not to work, but always do. Love is a constant theme, love and all the strange angles we come at it from, all the bits of mess that surround it like trust and bodies and death.

Emotion Machine is an extraordinary album. For every otherworldly throb or passage of avant-garde dissonance there is a moment of human closeness. You meet a man, you fall in love, you get a house, reproduce, as Gibson sings on closing track Brave. The things that singers have been singing about for the last hundred years or more. But rarely have those themes sounded more urgent or more passionate.