“Funny, although [Malaya] was going through civil war, in lots of ways it was more straightforward than Hong Kong. You’d know where you were most of the time. Not really like that here, is it?”
“No, it’s all about layers here,” I said.
“Layers. That’s a good word for it. Layers.
– John Lanchester, Fragrant Harbour
Emmy the Great’s Dandelions/Liminal, the first single released from her upcoming album, April, is about the final stages of a relationship when you know the end is coming but some of the embers of that first flame still glow. It also examines the dichotomy between societal expectations on the one hand, the natural world and intuition on the other, and the blurred edges between them.
The forward slash in the title gives the song three potential names: it can be either Dandelions, Liminal or Dandelions/Liminal. Dandelions is a concrete noun, while liminal, which can mean either a transitional or initial stage of a process or occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold, is an abstract adjective. This is a reversal of the expected grammar: an adjective is usually put before a noun to describe it. It also means the title itself has a certain liminality to it, unable to settle on either word or both.
Emmy The Great was born in Hong Kong, a fact mentioned in both the press release for the single and an interview on Sunday Morning Live that aired on 19 July 2020. Having also lived in the UK and New York, Emmy occupies a liminal space where she is able to sing in both English and Cantonese. I first heard her sing in Cantonese when a friend of mine, Laura, and I went to see her at the Village Underground, and Laura identified one song as a version of Faye Wong’s cover of Dreams by The Cranberries featured in Wong Kar Wai’s 1994 film, Chungking Express.
Hong Kong, which was a British colony until 1997, is a liminal space, sitting, historically, if not geographically, on the threshold of East and West. As a special administrative region of China under its ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy scheduled to last until 2047, it is in the process of changing jurisdiction. At present, with the controversy over its National Security Law, democracy protests, and threats by the Chinese Government to stop recognising the British National (Overseas) passport, it is also a battleground between Western, especially English-speaking democracy and control by the mainland.
The artwork released alongside the single is a diptych of historic photos of Hong Kong, taken from the vantage point of Hong Kong Island and overlooking Kowloon across Victoria Harbour, a natural division within the territory of Hong Kong itself. The photos overlap, so that the leftmost edge of the first photo comprises the rightmost edge of the second photo. This is the same structure as the title, with the word/photo you expect to be on the left appearing on the right. There is also a picture of what I assume is a dandelion on the left-hand photo, although it is hard to tell, and a clash of the natural world and urban settlements in both, but more distinctly in the right-hand picture.
The very first line of the song, ‘Oh it was terrible the trembling/back when the leaves were turning brown’, introduces this idea of liminality. The first clause is backed by tremolo strings, reflecting the trembling in the lyrics as they slide back and forth across the notes, while the second recalls the process of autumn, one of the subjects Emmy has said the album was about in a pinned Tweet.
But there is also the overlap between societal expectation and natural intuition, as demonstrated in the first verse after the first chorus. It opens with the desire to have a leisurely riverside stroll, but undercuts it with the question, ‘Isn’t that what people do?’, transforming it into a romantic ideal the couple is attempting to imitate without the underlying affection required to rekindle those spontaneous early days.
The next line, ‘You say we’ve lost touch with Mother Nature’ follows perfectly on from this, because the natural experience has been subordinated to societal expectation. By the time the final line, ‘And I say, I need to call my mother too’, comes around, we’re back completely to societal convention, away from intuition and without a mention of the natural world, as Emmy needs to use technology to fulfil what is expected of her.
An earlier couplet, ‘Let us dance a little more/they’re playing music in the store’, also deals with the way these two ideas interact, as the primal need to dance is changed once you realise that they are in a store, where that urge is not expected to be satisfied.
In fact, the other person in the song, her lover, acts as a sort of proselytizer for natural world. The three times they communicate are a note to say they are leaving town, saying that they have lost touch with Mother Nature, and that their official line is that heartache is healthy for the body. The last of these is followed by Emmy singing ‘If pain is healthy for the body, baby, you too could have a body like mine’, referring to a real advertising slogan used for several products, most notably for bodybuilding. The ‘official line’ becomes blurred because, depending on whether or not heartache is healthy for the body, the following line could be a validation of their outlook or a sarcastic joke.
This verse also introduces backing vocals singing ‘da da da da da da da’, which, aside from being much more interesting to hear than to read, is the first syllable of dandelions, the other half of the title, repeated as if literally scattering all over the place. Various other text painting techniques are used throughout to evoke this scattering.
The first time Emmy sings ‘scatter all over the place’, the first four syllables are quavers or half-notes, taking up a period of half a beat, and the fifth note, the second syllable of ‘over’ lasts for a dotted crotchet, or one and a half notes. The ‘the’ lasts for one quaver or half note and ‘place’ lands on the first beat of the next 4/4 bar.
The drum pattern also changes during the singing of this phrase, with the snare drum now landing on the first beat, the second half of the second beat and the fourth beat. All that has really happened is that one beat has been dropped and another moved half a beat, but the effect is that the backing seems stretched out, reflecting the scattering, which is further emphasised when combined with the rhythmic pattern of the lyrics.
The second time Emmy sings ‘Scatter all over the place’, the pattern changes. The six notes of ‘scatter all over the’ are stretched equally over the four beats in a set of crotchet triplets. The effect of this is that the words themselves seem to scatter over the beat. The fact that it is a different pattern of notes singing ‘scatter all over the place’ to the previous one calls further attention to the randomness of the scattering dandelions.
This scattering is also reflected in the final passage, where Emmy sings ‘Don’t give me anything except your time’ and a chorus of voices sings ‘scatter all over’. The chorus then echoes ‘your time’ and Emmy takes up ‘scatter all over the place’, so that the words themselves switch places to echo the scattering of dandelions.
The song combines this series of liminal motifs; the bittersweet twilight of a relationship, the inevitable passage of time, the natural changing of the seasons, intuition versus societal norms; into a song that slides effortlessly between conflicts. A breakup song without a breakup is difficult to categorise, to the point where it has a choice of titles, but that’s the point. It’s about the porousness of boundaries, the liminal spaces between layers. That’s a good word for it. Layers.