Music Reviews

Austra Olympia

(Domino) Rating - 7/10

Feel It Break, Austra’s debut was, for all its charms, a fairly tricky work. While there’s nothing difficult in itself about an album of bedroom dance music (even if the artist behind it was prodigiously gifted, classically trained and something of a pop virgin), the album’s simultaneous chilly distancing and heartfelt urging was an odd, yet heady combination; there was almost something charmingly camp about the borderline-teenage tantrums of Katie Stelmanis’ directionless angst, being rendered in such a stunning, yet spendthrift, fashion.

That’s not to say that, despite the aspirations of maturity – as the slightly overwrought domestic drama of first single Home, or the cover image of a suited Stelmanis, suggest - that Olympia is really in any way a grown up record (if it were, then there might be something a bit dodgy about the pleading "Come back to me / you’re seventeen’ on grammatically puzzling opener What We Done?"). Instead it’s a more polished, sharper work, but one that comes with its own dualities – on the one hand lyrically more grounded and focused, on the other far wider-reaching musically.

Compare I Don’t Care (I’m A Man) and We Become, two tracks that sit next to each other on the record but, other than sharing the same melancholia that imbibes everything with the Austra name, they really couldn’t be more different. The former is a rather odd little sketch that doesn’t do much other than threaten to throw the album off course (and, given that the likes of The Knife and Planningtorock have been bandied around in interviews with Stelmanis, it’s a shame that its lyrics are too mundane to offer much to synth-pop’s current gender debate), the other a glorious bit of balearic-infused melancholia which errs just on the right side of cleverness in its layers of percussion. Taken with the following track, Reconcile, it’s also probably the best indicator as to how this album is a step on from their debut – while Stelmanis’ powerful, if strangely accented voice remains Austra’s focal and US Point, Olympia is something of a group effort, with her backing vocalists making the polished iciness considerably more relatable not only with their sweet harmonies and counterpoints, but in their co-writing credits on the songs’ lyrical content. 

And the broader musical palette, compared to the endearingly cheap, stylistically odd approach of the first record ensures that, perhaps for the first time, the aural landscape is suitably wide and spacious enough for that voice, too. Penultimate track, You Changed My Life, which on paper might be fairly childish in its simplicity, is transformed thanks to the production picking up on a curiously shifting undercurrent of noise. For good measure, there’s also a broader range of influences here, perhaps a case of Stelmanis making new discoveries while making up for lost time in her pop consumption – although that Fire’s opening veers oddly close to Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock suggests it might be more a case of her only now feeling brave/able enough to pull it off, given that a cover of which has been in the band’s repertoire for a while now. Even more striking in its similarity is closer Hurt Me Now, which surely owes more than a little to Depeche Mode (Enjoy The Silence specifically), and is all the more welcome for it; while there’s something a bit disorientating about its blunt ending – possibly because emerging from such an onslaught of emoting back into the real world is always going to take a bit of adjustment – it makes for a far more accomplished conclusion than that offered on Feel It Break, which gradually became more and more insular before trailing off into nothing. 

While Olympia has its own trickiness to get over, there’s never a sense that it’s exactly intentional, more the result of a mind that sees the world at a slight remove; the press notes stress the album’s uncontrived nature, and that would be fair, yet conversely it’s still a bit pretentious - a horribly overused term, and always (always) a mark of bad criticism, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not an apt one here given that it sounds like genuine crisis, but ultimately means very little… and that it comes with a track titled Annie (Oh Muse, You). But given Austra’s back story, how could it not be? And while the music might still be a bit detached and remote, the more collaborative nature of this record does make it easier to meet half way, as does Stelmanis’ unerring sense of pop melody, and of when to drop a 4/4 beat for maximum effect.