An extraordinarily confident work, shaped by confusion and turmoil.
James Skinner 2011
On the one hand sweeping and allusive, on the other breathtakingly intimate and personal, Virtue is a dense, accomplished set of songs brought on by the disintegration of Emma-Lee Moss's engagement. Amid the swirling Paper Forest she sings the words "I'm blessed" with heartbreaking clarity; a kind of awestruck self-belief. Her delivery anchors the whole affair, assuming an emotional weight only glimpsed at previously.
Released through the band's own Close Harbour imprint and financed via the PledgeMusic fan-funding scheme, it is a far bigger, roomier set than debut album First Love, wherein many of the same players revolve around the core duo of Moss and Euan Hinshelwood. Along with producer Gareth Jones, the latter is responsible for the musical shift in tone. Softly wailing electric guitars and fuzzy basslines underpin many of the songs, which – married to Moss's plangent tones and a bevy of backing vocalists – creates a dreamy, otherworldly effect. If First Love sounded merely (very, very) pretty, then Virtue sees the pair hit upon something a little more idiosyncratic and unique.
Which is, you feel, exactly what they were aiming for. From the sultry, suggestive cover art to the wealth of characters and themes touched on over its 10 songs, Virtue is an extraordinarily confident work, even if that confidence is shaped by confusion and turmoil. Moss plays with the idea of narrative in the slow-burning Creation and delves into Jungian theory in Cassandra, talks dinosaur sex in, erm, Dinosaur Sex and paradise in North, pondering virtue and femininity all the while (A Woman, a Woman, a Century of Sleep is particularly stirring). There's a lot to chew on and conclusions are sometimes elusive, though the explorations precipitating them are unanimously enchanting.
On Paper Forest she sings of celebrating "The things that break us open and the things that make us feel." It's these things the record is ultimately concerned with, and she's never painted them as effectively as on the piano-led closer Trellick Tower. Moss's fiancé left her after discovering the church, and the song finds her alone in the flat they used to share, equating love with religion in an effort to work it all out. Resigned but never accusatory, it makes for a poignant reassurance that sometimes feeling utterly bewildered and lost is not only natural, but a strange and unmistakeable cause for optimism.