Don't be fooled by the picture on the cover of Scout Niblett's new album, a photo-booth shot of a couple in full make-out mode. The heart of It's Up to Emma is not a romantic one. These nine brooding, deeply scarred songs—eight originals and one well-chosen cover—are performed and sung as a form of personal exorcism for Niblett.
Before they were written, the U.K. native and Portland transplant went through a supremely affecting breakup. It's fine background information to put this amazing album into context, but also unnecessary. Niblett splays it all out over jagged guitar chords and drums that burst out the mix like pistol reports. She groans lyrics like, "I wish that you will find all you need/ I wish we could have been a reason for you to believe" and "God get him away from her spell" with shivering pain leaking through the tumult. If that weren't enough, Niblett has the audacity to turn TLC's "No Scrubs" into a midtempo lament, rendering its well-known chorus with withering, icy contempt.
Hope finally comes in the album's closer, "What Can I Do?," as Niblett wishes this former lover well just as a sun-drenched string section comes to life behind her. She may not trust the light at the end of the tunnel yet, but she's comforted knowing it's there.
HEAR IT: It's Up to Emma is out Tuesday, May 21, on Drag City.