Album Of The Week: EMA The Future’s Void
Seven years ago, covering CMJ for the Village Voice, I tried to go see High Places at the Cake Shop in New York, and I got their early enough to see the final song of the band that was before them on the bill. That final song just about sucked my soul out through my mouth. A blonde woman was howling with a ferocious sort of devastation, her voice near tears and absolutely dominating the barely-there feedback-and-piano accompaniment: “You’ve gotta keep on going / You’ll forget about me.” I was awestruck. Surprises like that are supposed to happen at festivals like CMJ and SXSW — they’re kind of the point of those things — but they almost never do, and I’m not sure I’ve felt a feeling like that one at any show since. The band turned out to be an L.A. trio named Gowns, and their album Red State, which I bought from the merch table that night, was full of crush-your-soul moments like that, at least when the noise-drone music got out of the way of the blonde woman, one Erika M. Anderson. Red State turned out to be the only album that Gowns ever released. But when Anderson went solo as EMA a few years later, we got to hear that voice at absolute full strength, wailing about high-plains high school hell and the deep, dark impossibility of moving to a new state and becoming the person you want to be. 2011’s Past Life Martyred Saints, the first EMA album, is one of my two or three favorite indie rock albums of the past decade. And now The Future’s Void, her second solo album, pushes that voice in some fascinating new directions, and I like it almost as much. Maybe I’ll like it more in time. It’s something special.
In a lot of ways, Past Life Martyred Saints was an album about growing into who you are and then about not being sure you like that person. Anderson grew up punk in middle-of-nowhere South Dakota, and some of the album’s most powerful moments were full of empathy for the kids made to feel like freaks: “You were a goth in high school / You cut and fucked your arms up / You always talked about it / They said you’d never do it.” But just as much of the album is about leaving town, moving to the big city, and being confronted with a whole new set of problems that you don’t know how to process, figuring out that cultural centers aren’t the utopias you expected. That’s why “California,” maybe Anderson’s signature song, starts out with one of the great opening lines of any song in recent memory: “Fuck California / You made me boring.” But the kids in Anderson’s hometown, and in towns like it, probably don’t define themselves by geography the way they did when Anderson and I were growing up. And that brings us to The Future’s Void, an album that’s, in many ways, about the promise and the peril of those new kinds of internet-based self-definition.
Past Life Martyred Saints was a scratchy, feverish, instinctive rock album, and some of its riffs edged their way into doom-metal majesty without even meaning to. Musically, The Future’s Void is more synthetic, though the electronics sound just as bone-rattling and intuitively cathartic as the guitars on the last album. (And there are guitars here, too; “So Blonde” is more of a fully-realized ’90s-style fuzz-pedal churn than most of our finest ’90s revivalists seem capable of making.) And even with all the computers at work, Anderson and her primary collaborator Leif Shackelford recorded most of the album in her basement, improvising much of it and keeping first takes intact. After a drum-machine backfire at the beginning of “Neuromancer,” we hear Anderson say, “Just keep going,” and it couldn’t be more perfect if it was planned. Anderson and Shackelford know how to use those electronics to keep you on edge, low-tech Suicide-style, and the songs here carry echoes of lonely, desolate music from eras past: Joy Division, Nine Inch Nails, Laurie Anderson. But they never sound like they’re quoting or consciously evoking anyone; the music, even at its quietest, feels too raw and urgent for that.
So she’s using technology, then, to address technology and the feelings it brings. Throughout, she makes constant reference to William Gibson, the cyberpunk author whose ’80s sci-fi novels did a ton to anticipate our messy present. “3Jane,” named for one of Gibson’s characters, tackles that mix of need and dread and embarrassment that comes when you post something maybe slightly too revealing online and then you keep clicking back to see how many likes it gets: “Left a hole so big inside of me / And I get terrified that I will never get it back to me.” The beautiful fugue-state closing track “Dead Celebrity” is about the sense of connection you can feel online to people you never met and about the artificiality and superficiality of that connection: “When you found out it was over, tell me what you wanna see / When you clicked on the link of the dead celebrity.” While most of this talk is pointed at least vaguely inward, Anderson isn’t above bringing harsh judgement to others: “Making a living off of taking selfies / Is that the way that you want it to be?” And even when she isn’t talking about the internet, there’s still a sense that the machines we’ve built are spinning out of control and that we’re losing ourselves to them. Opener and first single “Satellites” calls back to her late-Cold War childhood, back when the machines caused global-apocalypse paranoia, not profiteering sunny-tomorrow optimism. And “Smoulder,” while it talks about that same oversharing impulse and the fear it breeds, brings things down to flesh-and-blood interaction: “I staggered in the club, I staggered to the stage / Its bright lights fill me up with nothing, empty rage / And I wanna know what love is / I wanna trust for sure / If I forsake everything, baby, will you still be here?”
For an album so full of ambient terror and bad faith and dread, though, The Future’s Void is a nourishing experience, an album that will feed your soul if you let it. Some of that is in identification, in hearing someone make music out of a feeling that you’ve registered but maybe not named. And a lot of also comes down to Anderson’s voice and what she does with it. She’s got this way of leaving a certain withdrawn weariness in that voice even as she lets it float heavenward, fluttering over her tracks. She ends “Solace,” a glitched-out organ hymn, by chanting “beg” and “pray” over and over, multitracking her voice and turning it into a choir, then looping that choir in on itself, building a whole universe out of two words. On “Dead Celebrity,” there’s no judgement in her voice, just a calm and sad resignation. On the more intense and feverish songs, like “So Blonde” or “Cthulu,” she goes into primal-howl mode, losing herself completely in the dizzy swell of the music. And even if those moments are about feeling lost or broken, when those songs reach their thunderstorming apexes, they feel like triumph, not capitulation — like no computer, try as it might, could ever drown the humanity of a voice like that.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Todd Terje’s sunny, knowingly chintzy It’s Album Time.
• Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks’ bugged-out psychedelic debut Enter The Slasher House.
• Protomartyr’s postpunk rave-up Under Color Of Official Right.
• The Faint’s playful electro-punk squiggle Doom Abuse.
• OFF!’s grizzled tantrum Wasted Years.
• PUP’s giddy self-titled punk rock party.
• SOHN’s tender electro-popper Tremors.
• Young & Sick’s self-titled bedroom-R&B debut.
• Field Music side project School Of Language’s stiffly funky Old Fears.
• J Mascis side project Sweet Apple’s fuzzfest The Golden Age Of Glitter.
• Ratking’s warehouse-ready dirtbag-rap debut So It Goes.
• Mean Creek’s triumphantly rocking Local Losers.
• Cool Kid Chuck Inglish’s collab-heavy solo move Convertibles.
• Tweens’ anarchic self-titled trash-pop debut.
• King Of Prussia’s split-personality double album Zonian Girls… And The Echoes That Surround Us All.
• De Lux’s silky disco-popper Voyage.
• Screaming Females’ in-concert attack Live At The Hideout.
• SZA’s Z EP.
• Lilacs & Champagne’s Midnight Features Vol. 1: Shower Scene EP.