On the propulsive opener “Fever Dreams,” Emma Ruth Rundle breathlessly declares, “Fear, a feeling, is it real?/So nostalgic too, it just puts the dark on you,” immediately setting the tone on her fourth solo album, On Dark Horses, before the guitars can even come thundering through. Following up the wounded vulnerability on 2016’s Marked For Death, On Dark Horses features a restless Rundle picking up the pieces and moving forward all while creating her most visceral and personal piece of art yet.
While Marked For Death was written in isolation in the desert, Rundle collaborated with Jaye Jayle’s Evan Patterson and Todd Cook and Woven Hand’s Dylan Nadon to help flesh out her new record, giving On Dark Horses a relentless dynamic between Rundle’s intoxicating vocals and the ominous yet electrifying guitar work. The blackened folk of “Control” begins with a slow smoldering of sound before being engulfed by jolted guitar riffs, while the bluesy “Dead Set Eyes” emerges with hazy, dueling guitar interplay that Rundle’s vocals cut through like a knife.
Like its predecessors, On Dark Horses does a masterful job of utilizing its space, exploring unique and jarring sonic landscapes throughout. “Light Song” gracefully moves through its southern gothic sludge, highlighting a beautiful duet between Rundle and Patterson – his deep baritone the perfect complement to Rundle’s soaring delivery. And the final minute or so of the tremendous “Apathy on the Indiana Border” is Lynch-ian in its execution.
“Darkhorse” was one of the first songs written for the album and more or less became the focal point and emotional crux of the record. It’s Rundle at her absolute best – the lyrics about two sisters struggling to survive a shared trauma yet finding resolve and pride in being able to surpass it (“In the wake of weak beginnings, we can still stand high/It’s you and I, you and I still try”). Musically, it lulls and swells at just the right moments, making it one of the most impactful tracks in Rundle’s discography. Following that track is the laboring ballad “Races,” a dark western that evokes the spirit of late-career Johnny Cash and flows in the same physicality as Julien Baker’s Turn Out The Lights. These twelve minutes on On Dark Horses delve into both extremes of the Emma Ruth Rundle genre-bending spectrum, an exclamation point showcasing why she’s considered one of the most prolific songwriters within music today, regardless of genre.
It’s easy to typecast Emma Ruth Rundle as a brooding musician that only lives in the darkness of devastation, but On Dark Horses is anything but (“A life spent uneasy, in pieces, always in pieces here/ A life rent out completely, release me away from fever dreams,” Rundle exhales on the aforementioned album opener). There are still desolate moments on this record, but the light is becoming a little more vivid, as On Dark Horses perfectly finds the balance between the two.