What will future politics look like? Is it too optimistic to even picture a future in which there can be politics? Katie Stelmanis, the opera-trained singer who spearheads the swirling and hypnotic synthpop project Austra, probably wasn’t counting on the newest Austra record coming out on the same day that a terrifying tyrant would take control of the American government. Recorded music doesn’t move quickly enough for Future Politics to be a response album. And anyway, Stelmanis is Canadian; she doesn’t have to live under Donald Trump’s rule. Still, there’s something striking and oddly comforting about the way this album — an album with back-to-back songs called “Future Politics” and “Utopia” — is coming out on Inauguration Day. It’s enough to remind you that there could be life after Trump.
Austra’s latest isn’t some polemic, and it doesn’t lay out the way a distant society might work. For one thing, Stelmanis is concerned with the earthy and the emotional; the album’s most immediately poignant song is called “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself.” And even when Stelmanis addresses philosophical concerns, she does so in airy, nonspecific terms. But she definitely has big things on her mind, and certain lines on Future Politics might strike you harder today than they did when Stelmanis wrote them: “Reality’s beating, a grave has been dug / I’m looking for something to rise above.” And there’s plenty of struggle in Stelmanis’ quest to rise above. “Tradition we delete,” she sings at one point. Then, not long after, “If only it were true, if only.” Those lines could be personal, too. Stelmanis is, after all, a queer woman who often sings about matters of the heart. But the personal suddenly feels more political than it ever did before.
Since Austra debuted with Feel It Break six years ago, Stelmanis has worked in a very particular musical mode, a heady and insular sort of deep-pulse synthpop, one that owes things to house and Italo-disco without ever making the jump to full-on dance music. Instead, Austra’s music has always been about atmosphere. It’s the sort of thing that can fill up a room and encircle you. And right now, music like that feels particularly comforting. The track on Future Politics that stands out the most musically is its sole instrumental, the penultimate track “Deep Thought.” That song is just a swirl of harp sounds, with no beat and no human voice intruding. And while it might be a stark piece of music in itself, it fits in weirdly perfectly with the subtle throb of the rest of the album.
Austra have never really had dominant drum sounds. Instead, the focus is on the endless ripple of the keyboards and on Stelmanis’ voice, an unearthly coo that twists its way through the beats without ever locking into them. Austra always used to function as a band, but Future Politics is essentially a solo effort for Stelmanis. She wrote and produced the entire album, and while other musicians do offer contributions, this is clearly one woman’s vision. And in this version of Austra, the sound folds ever-more in on itself. Since releasing “Lose It” in 2011, Austra have never really bothered with making catchy songs, with producing the sort of music that you’ll find running through your head when you’re leaving their show. But on Future Politics, Stelmanis has moved the sound even further from the immediate and into the spectral. And whether or not that was her intent, I’m grateful for it. The immediate has nothing for us right now. And if we’re going to make a better future, we’re going to have to imagine that first. The album Future Politics might not deal with specifics, but the feeling is there.
Future Politics is out 1/20 on Domino. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Foxygen’s twisty, psychedelic Hang.
• AFI’s churning, soaring AFI (The Blood Album).
• Menace Beach’s fuzz-pop sunburst Lemon Memory.
• Cherry Glazerr’s canny garage-popper Apocalypstick.
• Uniform’s scuzzed-out industrial punker Wake In Fright.
• Michael Chapman’s lived-in folker 50.
• Tommy Stinson’s Bash & Pop reunion effort Anything Could Happen.
• The Proper Ornaments’ starry-eyed, guitar-centric Foxhole.
• Fresh & Onlys frontman Tim Cohen’s new solo album Luck Man.
• Sloppy Heads’ James McNew-produced Useless Smile.
• The reactivated Joan Of Arc’s art-punk return He’s Got the Whole This Land Is Your Land in His Hands.