My friend Joanna is, as far as I’m concerned, the foremost authority on the Toronto music scene (not that I know many foremost authorities on anything). She’s been a big fan of Austra, an sytnhpop act fronted by vocalist and songwriter Katie Stelmanis, since their inception and has declared their newest LP, Future Politics, a certified 100. These dark, beat-heavy tracks are less colorful and melodic than the synthpop I tend to gravitate toward, and I find that Stelmanis’ unique, operatic vocal deliveries and interesting lyrical moments are forced to do some heavy lifting to hold up the repetitive, undeveloped instrumentals arrangements.
With a name like Future Politics, you’d expect Austra to deliver a political record. Which they do, but only mildly and non-controversially. The titled track arrives second in the sequencing and, according to Stelmains in an in-depth track-by-track interview, concerns itself with a technological revolution that will overthrow capitalism. Lyrically, the track feels concerned but only touches on its subject vaguely, with lines like “I’m not a coward like them / Well I got my money” and a chorus of “I’m never coming back here / There’s only one way – Future Politics”. The follow-up and lead single “Utopia” takes a rosier-colored stance on the same topic and fares slightly better, with nice imagery in a line like “Cut me a slice of apple that I grow / My work is valid, I can’t prove it but I know”. The chorus melody is soaring, the synths add together and fill out the song vividly, and the breakdown two-thirds in sees almost all instrumentation cut-out as faerie-like falsettos sing ‘Utopia!’. In short, the song does well what a lot of the rest of the record fails to do – be melodic.
A handful of the tracks on Future Politics plod along at the same 1-2 bass/snare beat, keep their electronics minimal and in the low frequencies and shy away from big hooks or sparkling reverb, which is effective in letting Stelmanis’ striking, high-pitched and falsetto vocals cut through and deliver their lines clearly. But too often these songs fail to develop into something compelling. The closer, “43”, stays about as minimal as the record ever gets, slow, looping beat and a few bouncy basses around Stelmanis’ lyrics of “Oh I believe it, I haven’t seen it”. The song is another political one, about 43 missing Mexican students and their lack of acknowledgment, but again, without the backstory, the song is vague, and even with it, lacks in earnest sentiment. “Beyond a Mortal” rides echoing trip-hop production, but lacks any moment of tenseness or climax, and Stelmanis’ whispering vocals of “I’m in love with your color” leave something to be desired.
The high points come when songs take a simple beat or idea, then expand, add, color, and developer on it; or just kill it with a beautiful melody. The mid-album highlight “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself” falls into both categories. It’s a simple concept lyrically but still effectively paints depression (“There is nothing in your soul tonight / I only see darkness”). The chorus melody is fantastic, the keyboards and synthetic woodwinds fill out the arrangement wonderfully without ever being overbearing. There’s a mid-song bridge where the beat drops away and Stelmanis’ stands up as impressive as ever. The opener, “We Were Alive”, similarly delivers a radiant piece of new wave, capping with acoustic piano and string sections around the impressionistic refrain of “It’s like we were alive”. The penultimate “Deep Thought”, which is just a solo harp interlude, is also well-arranged and a welcome change of pace to the pulsating beats.
Still, the prettiest songs are never truly gorgeous, and for each solid track, there’s a dark, drab and underwritten one right around the corner. Stelmanis is a gifted singer, and she can certainly write about interesting topics and can craft a good piece of new-wave, minimalist synthpop, but she fails to do so consistently on Future Politics, and while none of these songs are offending, few of them excite. Fans of Depeche Mode and similar acts may dig it, but for me, the record failed to resonate lyrically or leave much of an impression sonically.