Like any music scene, the Emo Revival of the early 2010s was littered with problematic men wielding power over others. Durham, North Carolina-based singer-songwriter al Riggs returns to that era, not to wallow upon those treacherous slopes, but rather to share honest stories of pain and heartache born out of it. With the aptly-titled “Emo Revival,” premiering today via Audiofemme, al Riggs emerges as a remarkable storytelling vessel, a somber amber glow of guitar and gentle percussion pulsing around them.
“This is about a lot of stories that are not mine to tell, but mainly it’s about witnessing the birth and death of a musical movement in real time,” Riggs tells Audiofemme. “Entire mini-civilizations pop up from time to time and it’s always fascinating to be on the sidelines and witness it until you realize that these are real people (and all that implies) and not the magical architects some folks would have you believe. What a fuckin’ weird time it was. This is a song about someone hoping a dead movement comes back, for good and ill.”
Riggs beholds the emo flame as it ignites and then sputters out on the final stanza. “You weren’t ready to grow that fast/You had friends, then you didn’t have friends,” they cry. “Just a wall to de-thumbtack and shove into a box/Then move on like your future depends on the revival/Then you moved on like your future depended on the revival.”
“Emo Revival” is Riggs’ “pathetic version” of Joni Mitchell’s 1970 classic “Woodstock,” from her Message to Love album. “It was a very specific moment in time that we’re still reckoning with, but I wanted to write it in a way that was as poetic or faux-poetic as any song written about the hippie movement,” they explain.
Usually one to start with a phrase or a title first, Riggs crafted the song around the very loaded term “emo revival” from observing online discourse around very specific bands like The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die and Brightside. Riggs’ performance also speaks to the experience of many friends and ex-friends who once saw their careers flash like a comet in the night sky. “That era was certainly fun, and we got a lot of great music out of it. But I definitely don’t want to go back there,” they say. “I can attest for people I know personally ─ that whole ‘movement’ was just chock full of creeps and people who just wanted to reign supreme.”
“Emo Revival” appears on Riggs’ forthcoming LP, I Got A Big Electric Fan To Keep Me Cool While I Sleep, out April 2 via their own Horse Complex Records. The single is a bit of an outlier to the album’s overarching theme of relationships and queer domesticity. Calling to Father John Misty’s 2015 record, I Love You, Honeybear, in regards to structure, Riggs traces “the path of where I started to where I am now, in terms of my relationship with my now-husband” across 10 other songs ─ Riggs also notes lead single “America’s Pencil” as the other track which lies far outside the general theme.
The record begins with “The Most,” a deceptively anxiety-ridden intro into a an album that ultimately blooms into much brighter, warm colors. “It is a weird way to start an album that’s ultimately about a happy subject, but I think it works as a reminder that the story of the album is an excursion,” Riggs notes. “It’s not an easy path and doesn’t have a 100 percent happy ending. There are good days and there are bad days.”
Later, a cover of “Ragged but Right” finds Riggs linking up with two “bookends on the same spectrum of queer country, the past and the present,” in genre stalwart Patrick Haggerty, frontman of Lavender Country, and Paisley Fields, who has recently broken out with their 2020 record, Electric Park Ballroom.
“I had this song in my head for years,” says Riggs, noting the George Jones version they gravitated toward most growing up. “It’s one of those rare country songs that actually has a happy ending and a contentment to it. It’s someone who has lived a long, troubled life, and finally has settled down with a family and realizes there’s nothing wrong with that at all.”
In their own right, al Riggs is prolific in the Americana scene. They’re most known for a high level of output, often releasing two or more records in a single year. Since their debut in 2016, Riggs has recorded and released nine studio albums, including 2020’s Bile and Bone with producer Lauren Francis. Despite such a consistent stream of music, I Got A Big Electric Fan To Keep Me Cool While I Sleep feels wholly special in the bunch.
“I have figured out how to write about myself in a way that doesn’t seem glorifying or self-pitying. I’ve learned how to better indulge more universal themes and let the songs grow,” they say. “I’ve also learned to let things change and get better. I think the same can be said about my relationship and marriage. We’ve been together for four years. That’s the longest relationship I’ve been in, and I think one of the reasons why is patience. There’s always room for improvement and compromise. It’s easy to spot what is and isn’t worth fighting for.”
“I’m very lucky to have a partner who is tremendously empathetic and works with me in a way that doesn’t feel condescending. He meets me where I am, and that’s rare,” they continue.
Their husband is arts journalist Dustin K. Britt, who actually wrote the press release around the record, and for a very specific reason. While the record certainly explores their relationship, Riggs did not “want to think of him as my muse. It is absolutely not that kind of relationship at all. I hate that trope ─ that this person is my muse and nothing else. It’s a dangerous way to be in a relationship and to make an album.”
Riggs adds, “He points out in the press releases that he only really shows up once or twice over the whole album. It’s not specifically about him, or even me, although it is sometimes. It’s more about the growth between myself and him and the actual bonding and congregation of feelings.”