April 11, 2014

ema

B. Michael respects a good pair of Brett Hitman Hart sunglasses

Writing about a Record of Ideas is a lot easier than writing about a Record of Emotions, which should make this review of the new EMA album, Future Void, really easy. It is, ostensibly, a Record of Ideas.

Look at the cover. That’s EMA (perfunctory “née Erika M. Anderson”) wearing an Oculus Rift, that thing Facebook bought for $2,000,000,000. The video for the album’s lead single, “Satellites”, was created using an Oculus Rift, some Raspberry Pis, a Microsoft Kinect, and an iPhone 5s, as per tech blog The Verge. Technology: it’s, like, taking over our lives.

Let’s talk about that lead single. It opens with a blast of static, then a sub-bass thrum. Back to static. Then sub-bass. Its dissonance creates a soothing repetition. Enter hand claps, a repeated refrain – “open the satellites / open the satellites, oh” –, and a murky chord progression. The song builds up in layers like a junkyard of discarded electronics until it crests into some form of baroque industrial rock anthem: “i remember when the world was divided / by a wall of concrete and a curtain of iron”. It sounds heavy. It sounds dark. I don’t think it is.

The brilliant thing about EMA’s music is its pure, incendiary core like an arc welder. If we’re talking about the song as idea, it’s a song of hope and being found. It’s an invocation, the refrain “open the satellites”. The exhortation is opposed being lost – “she search godless / in this big space” – the open satellites find you. Now, that’s sinister. But consider the sad fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

It’s less interesting to talk about EMA’s latest album as an album of ideas, though. Everything you need to know is laid out in the first song, the lead single. But it’s driven home in the very next track. “So Blonde” It’s one of those absolutely perfect pop-rock tunes that bands like Nirvana used to produce by the metric tonne. Hell, it could even be read as a tribute to Nirvana with how it sounds and what it says,

so lemme tell you bout this boy I know
he’s bleached from here to hell and back
you wanna go over after the show
you know he’s never coming back

The Future’s Void is full of songs that seem to scream out: “I am about something”! In a pre-release interview with Pitchfork’s Lindsay Zoladz, EMA calls her latest more “guarded” and mentions that it is purposely non-confessional. That admission hardly squares with a song like “3Jane,” though, which takes its ostensible topic from a character of the same name from William Gibson’s Neuromancer. EMA takes 3Jane, who in the novel is a plot-wise important but narratively minor character, and writes a deeply aching internal monologue that absolutely eviscerates anything Gibson can do with character and emotion:

like an american superpower
turn on the spotlight
and nobody cowers

I don’t want to see you anything
I don’t want to put myself out
and turn it into a refrain
it’s all just a big advertising campaign

when everybody’s lookin
it’s supposed to be a dream
but disassociation,
i guess it’s just a modern disease

Ignoring for a moment that Neuroamancer’s 3Jane is not American (she might be Swiss-Australian or Brazilian?) the song clearly embodies the fear and seduction that passes through everybody, EMA included, as they navigate their lives today. Intellectually, everyone knows that basically everything is “just a big advertising campaign”. This review, the record it’s reviewing, the entire attention economy, which is just a symbiotic relation to life itself. Turn on the spotlight, and nobody cowers. What makes the line, and the song itself a sort of romantic ars poetica, is that EMA makes her art out of putting herself out and turning it into a refrain. If there’s anything she’s exceptionally good at, it’s creating affecting verses, phrases, snippets of melody, and repeating them until they take on an emblematic significance that overwhelms the particulars of any moment in song. That she’s able to take disease, anxiety, hurt, and even love and turn it into a performance may strike her as a “modern disease”, but it is in fact one of the oldest afflictions of humanity.

The Future’s Void seems to slot easily next to Arcade Fire’s Reflektor and St. Vincent’s St. Vincent as a big album of ideas, namely anxiety with the internet age. But it’s not surprising when EMA admits in the Zoladz interview, “I didn’t set out to make a topical record that was going to be “about” the internet and surveillance, but it accidentally happened”. The ostensibly topical songs, “Satellite”, “3Jane”, Neuromancer,“ are balanced out by more typically emotive songs like ”When She Comes“ and ”So Blonde". But more, they’re also complex emotional finials that create a nuanced portrait not so much of the surveillance state and the novel patterns of thought and behavior the internet conditions in us; since that just is how life is now, they’re less critiques and illustrations than multidimensional portraits of a messy life, our life.

Unlike other albums ‘about’ the internet, The Future’s Void is less thematic about technology. Even though it’s ostensibly quite influenced by technology, it more takes it as read that this is what’s happening and doesn’t waste time meditating on the already unfolded disaster that lies between #selfies and surveillance. As a work of art, it’s personally more satisfying as it makes me feel a lot rather than think a lot.

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