Review: EMA - The Future's Void

While EMA's astonishing, chastening 2011 solo debut turned intimacy into a form of punishment, her new album, The Future's Void, keeps listeners at arm's length.
EMA Futures Void cover

opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN < @scatlint >

Erika M. Anderson’s astonishing, chastening 2011 solo debut Past Life Martyred Saints turned intimacy into a form of punishment, both for her touchingly realized characters and her captive listeners. Intensely insular, almost myopically focused on the inner workings of dependence (on persons, drugs) and abuse (of persons, drugs), the broadest PLMS ever skewed was the much-quoted line, “Fuck California!” But Anderson wasted no time reining “California” in and bringing her wholesale rejection of the state back down to a paradoxically more comfortable, claustrophobically personal level: “You made me boring!”

The closest sonic sibling to “California” on her sophomore outing, The Future’s Void, is “Solace,” which also commences in widescreen – “From the gulleys of Atlanta to the plains states where we pray, I can measure all the distance by the way she says my name” – but doesn’t relinquish that sense of grandiosity or expanded geography. In fact, "Solace" grows even more massive in scale as Anderson concludes, “We made the constellations out of the falling stars.” Then “Dead Celebrity” begins, appropriating the melody of the U.S. Military’s mourning hymn “Taps” over sampled fireworks. It’s hardly Japandroids’ “Continuous Thunder,” but it’s similarly sweeping and emphatically unsubtle. The artist’s vision this time has taken a definite turn for the epic, fittingly enough for a record whose punning title conjures up multiple notions of vastness.

One might have surmised as much from advance singles “Satellites” and “So Blonde,” stacked at the top of Side A. The former’s an icy blast of industrial clamor, gothic strings, and unintentionally timely Cold War dystopianism; the latter’s a loose, sweaty, raw-nerve rock workout. Taken together with the third track, the ethereal ballad “3Jane,” these songs deftly preview the record to come and accomplish the difficult task of situating EMA’s work into a clear historical context. With Past Life Martyred Saints, genre classifications beyond “singer-songwriter” proved inadequate (blues? folk? post-rock? drone?) the closest analogues were still only distant cousins (Hole? Cat Power? Xiu Xiu? The Velvet Underground?), and the only explicit reference point was Bo Diddley (“I’m just 22, I don’t mind dying”). The Future’s Void engages openly with the conventions of specific genres, namely goth, industrial, and grunge. At the same time, “Satellites,” “So Blonde,” and “3Jane” also signal a broadening of Anderson’s lyrical horizons, often literally so as landscape figures prominently throughout. Instead of the introspective narratives of PLMS, the new album is heavy on the communal, the political, the national: America is a character in these stories and a target of their criticisms, and distance is thematized in the frequent references to surveillance, cameras, the internet, and wide open Midwestern plains.

It’s worth asking, though, whether these developments are all that positive. It wasn’t so long ago when the mere presence of a guitar in a singer-songwriter’s hands promised a certain kind of audience engagement, an emotional transmission. That model has become increasingly obsolete in recent years, what with the mix-and-match of such conventions heard in, for example, the work of James Blake. Of all the varieties of paranoia expressed during The Future’s Void, the most deeply rooted is a doubt about the validity of the confessional singer-songwriter trope. The initially lovely “3Jane” is less personal than it seems, as it turns sour with an ugly punchline: “I don’t want to sell you anything, don’t want to put myself out there and turn it into a refrain, it’s all just a big advertising campaign,” delivered in the hushed tone most singers reserve for doing exactly that. The question of the ethics of marketing pain is fascinating, thorny, and important, but in order to ask it, Anderson reneges on the principle that made Past Life Martyred Saints, probably this decade’s most powerful entry in the confessional singer-songwriter category, possible in the first place.

In renouncing the potential for that kind of confrontational exhibitionism and artist-audience empathetic connection, she also renounces or at least dilutes all her greatest strengths. It’s possible to connect much that worked about PLMS to its truly horrifying subject matter: the brutal frankness of “Marked” and “Butterfly Knife” made their haunting revelations impossible to avoid, while the collaged lyricism of other songs did the opposite, prettifying tough truths to make them somewhat digestible. These qualities don’t transfer smoothly to the new, more guarded context of The Future’s Void. “Dead Celebrity” is as unsubtle as “Marked” but the heavy-handedness feels overtly clunky when applied to American pop culture, and the song veers into self-parody. So does Lovecraftian rocker “Cthulu,” whose artificial gothic choir might have hit home paired with different material but sounds like campy ‘80s dress-up here. “When She Comes” tries for the accidental-magic refrigerator poetry of a “Breakfast” or “Anteroom” but the closest it manages is a dead-on-arrival scatological metaphor, “She’s my favorite enema.”

In general, the biggest offense The Future’s Void commits is that even when it’s successful, it still sounds cold. Anderson’s melodies are consistently strong – not one of these songs is forgettable – but ultimately uncommunicative. When, at the final refrain of “So Blonde,” the guitars cut out and Anderson holds out a single larynx-shredding note, it’s electrifying, one of only a couple moments on the album when Anderson feels totally present. For The Future’s Void, she’s traded in the tarnished grace and drug-ravaged ten-mile stare of her past life, but it’s not always such a fair deal for the listener. C+