AUSTRA: FUTURE POLITICS (2017)
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.