Austra Future Politics(Domino) Buy it from Insound
As Austra’s first (overt) foray into music-as-polemics, Future Politics struck me right away as surprisingly underwhelming. Prescient and apt though it may be, it struggles to find its footing as it straddles the line between radicalism and neutral soundscape. Pared down compositions cede center stage to the lyrics and the message, poignant in their simplicity, yet perhaps a bit too transparent in places.
Others have taken it on themselves to analyze the album’s political currents and contextualize them into our emerging reality. I’ve always left that exercise for thought pieces and purposefully left them out of music reviews. I don’t intend to change that now, but I’d be remiss if I left it entirely unspoken. Frontwoman Katie Stelmanis intended Future Politics to soundtrack our “collective sadness;” she even spoke openly about the uncanny release date, the same as Trump’s inauguration. It simply isn't possible to ignore the connections: the record didn’t just predict the demise of democratic order, but also the ensuing finger-pointing. The title track breathes down our necks: “I don't want hear/That it's all my fault/The system won't help you when/Your money runs out.” It’s irrelevant that she’s preaching to the choir, and it’s important now, more than ever, to put out works of resistance, but the tenor and musicality are flatter than I’d come to expect from the group.
While others have been laid out by the lyrics, I find them transparent and heavy-handed. Gaia is another plain example. “The physical world/Is the only world/If you kill the ground you walk on/Nobody will take you anyway,” so goes the refrain. I find little room for interpretation here, nor anywhere else on the record.
That said, what the lyrics lack (and they certainly aren’t bad by any stretch -- simply not particularly strong), the vocals mask. On the eighth day of our new regime, I had the pleasure of seeing Austra live at Philadelphia’s Union Transfer. That same day, the immigration ban sent shockwaves through the very foundations of democracy. But inside the four walls of the concert hall, Austra built a small haven from the tragic devastation unfolding in the outside world. It was Stelmanis’s voice, ethereal and almost operatic, that blanketed the room and kept us safe. Her voice on an austere synthesized backdrop are transformative, in vivo much more than on record.
Having played and replayed the somewhat lackluster new release, I came in with low expectations. I also thought the place would be packed. Breathing room in a normally crowded hall was a refreshing surprise -- Stelmanis actually told the room to stop shushing each other, since “we’ll play louder than you talk.” While this isn’t such great news for the band, it did mean that I was amidst only amateurs... in the original, non-pejorative sense of the word. I felt the energy of adulation in the room and promptly changed my mind: what a glorious album, what brilliant noise.
But my turn-on-a-dime philosophical stance towards Future Politics dampened at the very instant that first strokes of Feel It Break's The Beat and the Pulse reverberated through the ballroom. The pacifically joyful crowd dialed up to a frenzy at the familiar sound. Nothing unexpected for a show, of course, but what surprised me wasn’t how immediately resonant and unmistakable the song was, but how heavily it overshadowed every number played before and after.
Unlike most audiences in the days after a new release, Austra’s was more devoted, more familiar with and less irritated by the focus on new material. The mood was more calm and conversational, and, while Stelmanis was otherworldly, draped head to toe in orange velour and harsh backlighting, gesturing gracefully as though in her own personal aria, she somehow exuded an approachable, relaxed air. This is the atmosphere into which The Beat and the Pulse dropped to such a jarring effect. It brought me back down to earth, and solidified my initial reaction: solid as Future Politics is, it’s simply not Austra’s best work.
On the carshare home, I talked with an awe-struck boy, no older than 25, who had been moved to breathlessness by the performance. I remembered him as the voice behind me during the show: “She’s so great, right?” He was visiting from Oregon, elated to have caught the show, and boldly proclaimed Austra to be his hands-down favorite band. While his friend and I both sat equally amused and bemused by his enchantment, I’ll admit it was infectious. Any musician who evokes that kind of response deserves our attention.10 February, 2017 - 04:43 — Gabbie Nirenburg