CD Review: Fight Like A Girl – Emilie Autumn

For those who are long-time fans of Emilie Autumn, the personal nature of her music is well-established.  It is by no accident that she sings so frequently of mental illness, suicide, trauma and asylums.  Her autobiographical novel, The Asylum For Wayward Victorian Girls, is a hefty tome that runs parallel stories of Emilie Autumn checked into an asylum (and somewhat graphic journals about self-injury) and Emily, a young Victorian girl who is sold, used, abused and unjustly incarcerated in an asylum, where she literally winds up in a fight for her life who is, Lake House-style, leaving Emilie letters telling her story… or is she?

Perhaps inspired by working with Darren Lynn Bousman (Repo!  The Genetic Opera) and Terrance Zdunich on The Devil’s Carnival, Autumn has announced her intentions of launching a Broadway musical version of her book.  Granted, her stage shows have always been heavy in theatricality, but the ambition to create a stage show proper as opposed to a dramatic concert experience is new.  It is at this point where Fight Like A Girl comes in.  Presented as the soundtrack of the musical-to-be, Autumn takes her dramatic tendencies to a new level, embarking on a musical retelling of her book and performing all of the parts, both male and female.

Musicals are a matter of individual taste:  some love them, while others hate them (I, for the record, love them, particularly more modern/rocking/creative works like Spring Awakening and Rent).  Can an album presented as a soundtrack and standard album all at once hold up for the average listener?  Without further introduction, allow me to take you through FLAG.

Fight Like A Girl:  The opening track, from which the album takes its name, is a battle cry slash summary of what the asylum inmates will face throughout the course of the album’s narrative.  Like a Tarantino film, Autumn has chosen to begin near the end and rewind later.  Fake harpsichord heavy and layered with vocals representing a chorus of women, the song is catchy, if a little ridiculously man-hating.  If “Gothic Lolita” was the naming of atrocities and sentencing hearing, “Fight Like A Girl” is the justice system coming to dole out the punishment.  For that reason, one might find this song a little repetitive or a reiteration of Opheliac’s primary message, but it stands alone well enough.  I’m not fond of the seemingly out of place growl in the opening verse.

Time For Tea:  Transitioning with the sound of gears and chiming clocks, the harpsichord is back in full effect, leaving one nostalgic for the violin Autumn built her name upon.  Again, the snarled “tea!” seems completely out of place with the other versions of Emilie’s voice (again representing the varying parts she imagines in her stage production).  The fake accents actually detract from what is otherwise a clever song that plays off nursery rhymes.  The endless repetitions of “Eradicate!” at the end feel unnecessary and spoil what might otherwise be a highly rated track for me.  The whole “scalpel – check” sequence is so plainly ripped off from Repo! The Genetic Opera that it hurts my soul and affirms my theory of Bousman’s influence.

4 O’Clock (reprise):  A reprise from what, you ask?  A reprise of one of Autumn’s many singles released in the five year gap between albums proper (I speak of albums with lyrics; there have been instrumentals).  This is where I begin to take issue with Autumn releasing the proposed cast recording demo, as it were, for a stage show:  without the context of the show she sees  in her head, the reprise is, frankly, pointless.  It’s not a bridging piece that lies well sonically between the preceding and following songs.

What Will I Remember?:  A melancholy musical monologue, heavy in strings, this would be the part where the musical rewinds and establishes why, precisely, Autumn wants revenge on every man alive.  It frankly reeks of “I Dreamed A Dream” from Les Miserables and although Autumn had always been somewhat dramatic, this comes off like amateur Andrew Lloyd Weber.  Within the context of a musical, it wouldn’t be bad, but as an actual album track, it doesn’t appeal.  It’s not universal enough, despite its laments about life and its pain.  Purportedly, this is about Emilie’s suicide attempt, as opposed to Emily, the Victorian inmate screaming about tea.

Take The Pill:  One could imagine this as an anthem for Girl, Interrupted.  Emilie attacks the medicalization and disempowerment of those with mental illness (and women in general) via an angry slam against drug therapy, electric shock and institutionalization.  Heavily layered and more true to the “victoriandustrial” sound established with Opheliac, it is perhaps one of the least “Broadway” tracks on the entire disc.  Again, the trouble I have with this track is the incredible amount of repetition.  Did someone tell Emilie that Broadway=repetitive?  It doesn’t have to be that way.  The lyrics also feel out of sync with the music towards the end, rammed in rapid-fire in a way that reminds me of Alanis Morissette’s “Unsent”.  This song needs a trim, a tightening up.

Girls! Girls! Girls!:  If you’re familiar with the musical Annie, specifically the film version and the “never fully dressed without a smile” and “hard knock life” numbers, you’ll understand when I say this sounds like that orphanage and Miss Hannigan fast-forwarded ten years in time.  Instead of cleaning all day, the girls are now on display for the amusement and perhaps sexual pleasure of the waiting crowds.  The varying voices all presented by Autumn becomes grating towards the end.  I wish she’d either employed another singer or simply sang in a single voice.  This song is a carnival gone wrong, and while some of the lyrics are very clever condemnations of the Victorian Era and its perspective on women and mental illness, the theatricality of the number again leaves one with a song that might be great for a spin now and again, but not regular listening.

I Don’t Understand:  From the ringmaster number, we move to into an outright musical number that frankly, for those who have not read Autumn’s book, makes not a lick of sense.  The purpose behind the photograph, the characters she is portraying, all of it is so unclear as to render the song pointless without the show.  Annoying, quite honestly.  I’ve read the book and luckily know that the girls on display are all forced to have photos taken so that men may “order them up”, as it were, and that this is a dialogue between a photographer oblivious to the truth of the asylum and Emily, aka Victorian-era Emilie.  But without that knowledge, you’re apt to scratch your head.

We Want Them Young:  A number that is purportedly the doctors and inmates singing in a back and forth exchange, it opens with heavy strings, a refreshing reminder of Autumn’s skills.  The number depicts the introduction of a new inmate to the asylum.  Again, the Victorian views on hysteria come to the forefront and it’s growing old quickly.  Scarily, Emilie’s “Madame Mournington” voice sounds very much like Amanda Palmer, intriguing in light of the cabaret-esque numbers that evoke The Dresden Dolls.  Unremarkable.

If I Burn:  Harpsichord is in full effect as Emilie echoes the fight within the opening number, with a dark promise that, “If I burn, so will you!”  One of the few songs that can be enjoyed as a stand-alone number, it evokes the dynamic between a kidnapper and the woman he’s abducted vowing bloody vengeance.  Eerie, sinister and sardonic, it’s one of the few songs that feels polished and solid on the album to this point.  No irritating repetition of a single word or phrase, no “many voices of Emilie”.    Lush and heavy.  No wonder I enjoy it, as do many fans:  it’s a leftover from the Opheliac era.

Scavenger:  And then, sadly, we are plunged into another song that will make very little sense to casual fans or those just discovering Autumn.  The grinding of gears lulls the listener into a tale of an evil doctor who simply supplies what is demanded – no matter how many young girls die in the process.  The lyrics are so dark as to not appeal for repeated listens without the context of the story, particularly when the track is seven minutes long.  Others have brought up how much it sounds like Repo! The Genetic Opera and I absolutely concur:  this could be a song performed by the Repo Man.

Gaslight:  Another straight-up narrative number for a musical, “Gaslight” is the lament of Emily as she contemplates the death that seeks out each inmate, one by one.  She condemns her captors as well as the town that refuses to see the truth of what the asylum is doing behind its closed doors.  Musically, the song reminds of the Enchant era and its ethereal waltz-like melodies, which is a pleasant shift from the Broadway-industrial numbers that are beginning to blur together for me now.  Again, this song makes little sense without the context of the book or a show.  More appealing perhaps than “I Don’t Understand”, but still an awkward number for casual listening that functions as an echo of “What Will I Remember?”, right down to the “dreaming” theme.

The Key:  At last, the end is the beginning is the end, so to speak:  a strictly narrative piece details how precisely the revenge in “Time For Tea” comes about.  Sweeping and dramatic, yet ultimately not a song, but a spoken word piece, it serves well as information to ground the more abstract numbers.

Hell Is Empty:  Guess what Emily did with the key?  Even without hearing “The Key”, you can wager a guess.  Primarily instrumental, aside from the rat noises and a few lines snarled by Emilie.

Gaslight (reprise):  At least this reprise is of a song on this album, right?  A part of me feels that the previous instrumental and this one should have been combined into a single track.  Gorgeous strings on this one.

Goodnight, Sweet Ladies:  Referred to by Autumn as a funeral march, this song functions as a salute to the inmates who perished at the asylum, whether it be in the doctor’s sinister hands or during the battle to overthrow the doctors.  The multitude of voices is far less irritating here; it instead feels like simple overlays as opposed to characters.  Although repetitive, this song stands out for its use of previously released material in its outro – specifically, “4 O’Clock” and “The Art Of Suicide”.  It lends a coherency that confirms Opheliac‘s connection to this material, and adds a richness to the number.  In terms of musicals, think of “Will I” from Rent.  Again, there’s a flavour of Enchant in here.  Nicely done.

Start Another Story:  Strangely somber, SAS is a song of releasing the past and creating a new future.  Harpsichord stands out here, lilting beneath Autumn’s notes, lifting them up.   A very plain response/reprise of “What Will I Remember” lyrically.

One Foot In Front Of The Other: I can’t help it:  I hear this and it’s such a rip-off of the Les Miserables finale with the marching drums and its message of “what do the survivors of this battle do with their sad memories?” that I’m turned right off it.   For a musical, it will function well as a finishing number; for a song on its own, it again is too tied to the musical.

Final Comments:  The primary trouble with this album – and Autumn herself revealed this – is that the album began as just an album, one that she promised would be more of a thrashing metal sound; mid-way through, she hijacked it as a musical soundtrack.  The result is a lack of coherency and ultimately, a lack of unity in terms of the sonic landscape of the album.  It’s very clear, with this knowledge, which songs were written before and after the shift in artistic direction.  The result:  an album that is neither a soundtrack nor an independent project.

I love musicals.  I enjoyed Emilie’s book, and appreciate her ability to shed light on the treatment of those in asylums past and present, particularly women.  That said, even taking this as a soundtrack for a musical, it needs serious work to be solid.  The lyrics are repetitive and at times cheesy or too literal.  The choice to perform all parts by herself turns songs that should be moving into camp.

Further, I’m honestly tired of the “asylum theme” of her work.  This marks two albums, a book, a potential musical and several singles in between, never mind her stage show since 2005 all focusing on asylum lore.  I appreciate how personal the matter is for Emilie and have lived experiences that parallel many of hers; that said, FLAG comes off as a rehashing of Opheliac – the difference being that Opheliac’s songs were self-contained vignettes that could be enjoyed without an intimate knowledge of Emilie’s life story or book.  Frankly, I would have preferred she not release this as an album and wait for a proper cast recording.

This album, I wager, will be love it or hate it for existing fans; for strangers walking in, it’s a very poor introduction to what Emilie can do.  The violin she is renowned for is scarcely present and often buried in programming; the material is not easily accessible; and the style is all over the place.  It may grow on me over time, but it will never hold a candle to Opheliac nor will I ever love the entire thing as a stand-alone album to spin.  As for a musical?  I’d recommend a musical film.  This will never survive on Broadway or off.

Highlights:  If I Burn; Fight Like A Girl; Time For Tea; Take The Pill; Girls! Girls! Girls!
Lowlights:  I Don’t Understand; What Will I Remember?; 4 O’Clock (reprise); Hell Is Empty; Scavenger

Final Grade:  C+

Sample the new album at Emilie’s Official Site.

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