One of the most common (and most entirely dumb-ass) cultural refrains currently at large is the notion that great art emerges in times of social and political turmoil. “Yes, this administration will be awful,” the faceless hordes opine, “but the art will be great!” They then presumably return to the blissful alternate dimension–one in which everyone is given free health care and on-demand sex–from whence they’ve no doubt come. Even if we could qualify the claim that great art is made in times of strife, why on earth would that be a comfort? No matter how much succor and personal definition we may draw from art, the fact remains that you cannot eat a painting and Beethoven’s 9th isn’t going to pay your medical bills.
Which is why I’m very nervous about telling you how good Austra’s new album Future Politics is. It’s good. And entirely politically apropos. But I’m worried if I say that, someone somewhere will seize upon this review as evidence that the collapse of our political institutions and heightened levels of political and physical danger for marginal communities is worth a bomb AF Against Me! album. But it’s my duty to tell you how good this record is, SO IF YOU PROMISE NOT TO BE A B-HOLE, I’ll continue.
Some background: Austra is the ongoing electronic music project founded by Canadian musician Katie Stelmanis, who initially rose to prominence as 1/3 of a band called Galaxy. Initially conceived as a solo bedroom record project, over the course of a handful of EPs and two studio albums a shifting lineup of musicians have joined Stelmanis to produce and perform under the name Austra. Unlike Austra’s past two studio releases, 2011’s Feel It Break and 2013’s Olympia, Future Politics was written and produced entirely by Stelmanis, and the resulting cohesion is a major payoff.
It’s important to note that most of the band is Canadian–Katie Stelmanis is from Toronto–and that the record was conceived of and recorded before this particular election. But the inauguration day release and the vision of a world imperiled by the dark impulses of humankind seem eerily topical.
Future Politics, rather than elaborating on Austra’s previous sound, presents a streamlined (at times borderline-ambient) version of it. Album opener “We Were Alive” is composed of blocky synths over two undulating chords and a vocal melody that sounds improvised. “Deep Thought” is a lush meditation of solo midi-harp. Even the title track, the closest the album ever gets to a real dance anthem, is a relatively sparse affair of four-on-the-floor drums and blooping sequencers. Even Stelmanis’ classically trained voice is largely devoid of the operatic heft of her work on Olympia and Feel It Break. Lines like “a woman screams, she’s looking for meaning behind/ a man who made her cry her whole damn life” are delivered as sterile observations, thrown out in a trembling upper-register.
The reason for this sonic sparseness becomes apparent as the album lyrically unfolds. Austra fills the holes in their sound by supercharging the latent political content of their earlier releases. In a track-by-track interview with Nylon, Stelmanis discusses some of her inspirations for the record: New Pantheonism, science-fiction, the #AccelerateManifesto, the 43 missing Mexican students. It makes sense then that songs like “Gaia” and the title track read like tiny political manifestos. There are moments of self-exploration on Future Politics (“I’m a Monster” explores depression and “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself” is a love song to someone else who suffers from depression and low self-esteem) but even these are concerned with the effect of the outwardly political on the internal self. How do you keep yourself together when the world is falling apart?
Despite all of that, the real nugget of genius that lies at the core of Future Politics is the emotional ambiguity surrounding our brave new world. On “Utopia,” Stelmanis elegizes for a version of Toronto long lost to the maelstrom of development and stainless steel condos, but underlying the loss is an unyielding optimism. “My work is valid,” she declares, “I can’t prove it, but I know.” The future looks bleak but Future Politics posits that maybe, just maybe, we can change all of that. Maybe, if shift our paradigms far enough (and stop making bullshit claims and how Trump will be good for art or whatever), we could make it extraordinary.