Albums / EPs, Reviews

Album Review: EMA – The Future’s Void

Erika M. Anderson’s gnomic 2011 album, Past Life Martyred Saints, was a lesson in vulnerability and…

Erika M. Anderson’s gnomic 2011 album, Past Life Martyred Saints, was a lesson in vulnerability and honesty – often of the most brutal nature. It was an album that, like The Dude, seemed to exist very much in its time and place – but was so singular that it seemed to transcend both. During that album’s lyrical cornerstone, ‘California’, Hollywood was the root of our inner evils and made for Anderson’s prime target. On The Future’s Void she tackles an even greater and more pervasive zeitgeist: the Internet. And while the object of her contempt may have changed, the effects, for the most part, have remained. ‘California’ was a parade of alienation and desperation, and one of its starkest moments was Anderson “begging you please to look away”.

That sentiment might well have been the precursor to her sophomore effort, The Future’s Void. Her struggle with the Internet and its effect on privacy is aligned with William Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, which she references throughout the album. A quote from that novel could easily have been this album’s premise: “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation.” But while the novel’s world is an archetype of science fiction dystopia, Anderson’s is an all-too-real double existence filled with paranoia and angst. 

Where cyberpunk tends didactically to forecast the woes of an over-technologised world, Anderson retains her character lack of pretence. The subject of the falsities of the Internet and the dangers of inhabiting it are becoming a hotbed for talented artists; Arcade Fire and St. Vincent have both addressed it in the past year. And yet Anderson manages to avoid the pretensions that came with those albums and The Future’s Void is more potent for it. She achieves this because her songs begin as exceptionally personal avowals, but morph into ubiquitous creations whose scars seem impossible not to take on as the listener. 

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This album’s lyrical centrepiece, ‘3Jane’ is the paragon of this kind of inescapable relatability. It gets its name from a type of clone from Gibson’s aforementioned novel, and the idea permeates every line of the song. “Feel like I blew my soul out/across the interwebs and streams” she murmurs, building up to the cathartic cry: “it left a hole so big inside of me/and I get terrified that/I will never get it back to me”. The feeling of paranoia and disconnection threatens to debilitate any prolific Internet user. It is the fear that there is some virtual realm – some Facebook pseudo-realism – in which we all live separately from our experiences: a secondary life that we lead which may be detached from reality, but which has every ability to ruin it. 

One of EMA’s strongest qualities is her talent for creating stunning melodies that she intersperses with arrhythmic elements at the most poignant of moments. It is a talent that separates her from any of her contemporaries. Take the distorted scream that infiltrates ‘Satellites’ as it reaches its nucleus, or the earth-shattering wall of sound that erupts in the coda of ‘Cthulu’. These moments perfectly map out and foil her lyrics, playing in perfectly with another talent of hers: truly devastating lyrics. It is an effect that she plays on throughout ‘Smoulder’ and it serves to amplify the emotional reaction when she yells lines like “so stone me to the ground/ and we get older each day now/and we just smoulder/where the flames went out”. These are songs that are structured to hint at the responses that their lyrics will elicit, but which do everything to magnify their effects.

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And while this album has a focused thesis, far more so than Past Lives did, the effects produced by each song differ dramatically. The delicate, blithe-sounding ‘100 Years’ seems to belie its morbid theme; while the synth riff that underpins ‘Solace’ evokes an otherworldly franticness that juxtaposes the song’s title. 

Anderson’s musicality has evolved, as many artists’ do in their sophomore effort, but she has avoided the over-elaboration that often accompanies this transition. Her focus on the music is as a music lover – she had to learn how to create the new sonic landscape that she had envisioned. But what hasn’t altered is the way in which her songs twist and jolt and transform throughout their span. Each song feels like a new journey that Anderson is undertaking; not one which she’s inviting you to join, but one which you can’t help but be captivated by.

The journey might not have a happy ending, but it does provide some form of reprieve: the album’s last three songs provide so much space that they come off as room to reflect on all that came before them. It acts as breathing space, which is necessary for an album as cathartic and as layered as The Future’s Void. The most complex works deserve deeper consideration, and if that wasn’t quite Anderson’s intention, it’s certainly its result. This is an album whose thesis is so vast that it could easily have turned into a treatise in pretension. But Anderson approaches the topic so personally, and with such debilitating openness, that the only response is to be absorbed by it. “I don’t want to sell you anything”, she insists on ‘3Jane’, and it never seems like she does. This is her story. But like all great stories, it’s one that seems to reify our own.

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