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Saturday, March 18, 2017

Austra: Future Politics


1) We Were Alive; 2) Future Politics; 3) Utopia; 4) I'm A Monster; 5) I Love You More Than You Love Yourself; 6) Angel In Your Eye; 7) Freepower; 8) Gaia; 9) Beyond A Mortal; 10) Deep Thought; 11) 43.

First time I put this on, it absolutely sucked, the verdict being simple: it took Stilmanis but two records to become so full of herself that on the third one, she simply pushes forward her socio­political agenda (which is not too different from your basic leftist values, just stated in her own way) without caring too much about how good the music is. Sound familiar? Yes, many people took that same road before, so why shouldn't she, as a responsible Canadian citizen?

Fortunately, this did not turn me off to the point of not allowing for further listens — and even­tually, it became possible to warm up to Future Politics. See, it's still quite a decent pop album, with plenty of vocal hooks and a nice shot of personality. It seems self-evident to me that at this point, the lady is much less interested in the intricacies of musical textures than she is in stating her beliefs, issues, and manifestos through the musical medium — but the one thing that conti­nues to separate her from much of the competition is that she still has her own style, and that style is... well, suitable enough for the expression of beliefs, issues, and manifestos without causing an irrepressible urge to use a waterhose on the expressor (expressionist?).

The opening track, ʽWe Were Aliveʼ, is proof enough of that. The entire synth palette here is restricted to about two chords, plus a trip-hoppy percussion track that almost seems out of place (Katie herself said she was inspired by Massive Attack, but if you smoothen out the percussion and replace her vocals with something less shrill, you will rather get Enya) — the emphasis is placed squarely on the chorus hook, where, in the most plaintive tone imaginable, she asks you "what if we were alive?", transparently suggesting that we are not, because "I believed in nothing before". This immediately sets up a somewhat more realistic tone for the rest of the album, even more realistic than on Olympia, and opens up a more human dimension to her voice and general aura — not exactly a «compensation» as such for the lack of musical depth, but at least some­thing to keep you respectfully distracted from the drop in pure musicality.

On the other end of the atmospheric pole, the title track is a techno-stylized dance number with predictably, perhaps even generically bubbling synth loops, but a catchy chorus ("I'm never coming back here, there's only one way — future politics!" she chirps with the accent placed on the last syllable of "politics" and the mood of a little girl, innocently hopping from tussock to tussock), reflecting pretty utopian beliefs in a kind world ruled by socialist technology. Again, this is melodically simple, but it states its point in a non-obnoxious way, which, paradoxically, might make you want to take it seriously — efficient, not stupid, simplicity.

The rest of the album veers and wobbles between these «balladeering» and «rocking» extremes: I do not see even a single song here that would approach the unusual sonic overlays and interesting classically-influenced chords of Feel It Break, but even without that, most of the tracks have some emotional tug. ʽUtopiaʼ is a broken-hearted-falsetto-laden obituary to the «old Toronto» disappearing under the alleged onslaught of mindless urbanization; ʽI'm A Monsterʼ has the line "I don't feel nothing, anymore" delivered in a creepily believable manner; and ʽI Love You More Than You Love Yourselfʼ is an excellent ballad whose troubled and caring verse melodies make a cool contrast with the strangely grandiose delivery of the chorus hook — reminds me of all that arch-deeply-felt Sinead O'Connor dark romanticism, except this is better.

Without spending too much on this, let me just summarize the main points. These songs are not at all musically challenging or original. Most of them are also intentionally non-enigmatic, with lyrics that could easily be decoded even by those who shun, detest, and close their minds to any sort of symbolism. The system of beliefs and values behind the music is quite standard: socialism, environmentalism, compassion, and a bit of New Age to tone down the anger. But Stilmanis is a natural talent, if not exactly genius, and when she asks me, "do you acknowledge what I'm saying?" on the last track, I'm tempted to reply in the positive. I still like the atmosphere, I admit she still uses her voice as a cool and experimental musical instrument, and, aw shucks, I just think there's plenty of catchiness in these choruses to merit a thumbs up. At the same time, I'm also pretty sure that if she does not recapture proper composer's inspiration in the near future, any subsequent albums are bound to get much worse — there's only so long you can sustain public interest in a rigid formula if you just keep simplifying it.


  1. I'm sure you've written over a dozen variations of: "I am repulsed by this record because it has political or environmental lyrics", -- both here and on your old site. I guess it must be a psychological hang-up on your part which doesn't reflect on the objective value of the music.

    1. I have never been repulsed by any record simply "because it has political or environmental lyrics", and have never written anything of the sort, either here or on the old site. I HAVE been repulsed by allegedly musical records that, in my opinion, favor political or environmental lyrics over musical content. But that is absolutely not the same thing.

    2. That might be, but it reveals itself as a bias against sincere political statements. If mediocre music is coupled with nonsensical lyrics it never bothers you, but the minute that some sort of leftwing messaging is attached you recoil and quickly discover various specific reasons to dislike this piece of music or find the lyrics inadequate etc.

      Your overall approach is consistent with someone who really is repulsed by political messaging, because its appearance immediately bars your enjoyment. This review is a good example. Another example, which in itself is not conclusive, but which I remembered, is when you wrote this about A Question Of Balance: " I hate eco rock for its brainwashed nature and (usually) dorky lyrics"

      It is your blog, you are free to feel this way, but to me it has just become a very noticeable pattern.

    3. If mediocre music is coupled with nonsensical lyrics what bothers me is the mediocre music; nonsensical lyrics are not attracting attention to themselves and can be ignored. If mediocre music is coupled with a political statement, it bothers me because it fights for my attention with propaganda, not with what it is supposed to fight for - musical merit. So, obviously, leftwing messaging is far more irritating in the context of a bad song than anything of the "I want to hold your hand" variety.

      That said, in case you haven't noticed, I have written fondly about a lot of leftwing songs - from 10,000 Maniacs to Bad Religion - as long as the message, which is in itself a cliche (admit it, "save the world" isn't by itself a deeper philosophy than "I wanna be your boyfriend", even though it seemingly aspires to more), is properly emphasized by the emotional content of the music. And even this album manages to place enough emphasis on the music (at least, the vocal part of it) to be good.

  2. So you think music is primarily sound while the lyrical part of it is secondary. But that is a very subjective way of putting things. You are aware for some people its the other way around. I think its fair for you to highlight that you care more about sound. Mediocre lyrics can be truly disturbing for someone who cares about that, as much as sound cliches can annoy you. It doesnt make sense to state that mediocre lyrics are tolerable because they dont attract attention. What means "atract attention"? Like the other commenter I also feel you have a bias against ideological charged music. Its more fair to say you dont have time, space, energy to also focus on lyrical aspects of music and you easily praise or dismiss based on subjective yes/no criteria. Unlike your musical analyses that are more detailed and not superficial.

    1. Let me point out that focusing on lyrical aspects of music is actually far easier for anybody than focusing on musical aspects of music, and is precisely THE focus of the absolute majority of professional music reviews that I occasionally browse through. Which is understandable, because it is very hard to write about musical aspects of music without slipping into technojargon (if you are a professional musicologist) or into the same set of repetitive cliches (if you are an amateur, like myself). However, there is also a reason why we call music "music" and not "sonically enhanced poetry" - its primary medium is sound, not semantics, and the voice in music is primarily used as one more musical instrument, making it more important HOW the words are sung than WHAT it is that they really mean (otherwise, one wouldn't be able to enjoy classic opera without a good command of Italian). So no, I don't think the matter is entirely subjective. Of course, if somebody listens to pop music for the words, that is his/her prerogative and there's nothing criminal in that - just as there's nothing criminal in judging the value of movies by the amount of tits and explosions contained therein, because there's nothing wrong with tits and explosions - but I don't think many would agree that this is the most logical and natural way to approach the medium.