EMA Decidedly Digital with ‘The Future’s Void’
Matthew Munhall | Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Erika M. Anderson grew up in Sioux Falls, S. D., playing in Riot Grrrl and noise bands before moving to the West Coast. Her 2011 debut album under the moniker EMA, “Past Life Martyred Saints,” was a great lo-fi collection of heart-on-sleeve confessionals. Particularly affecting was album standout “California,” a stream of consciousness in which she laments, “I’m just 22 / I don’t mind dying.” Now Anderson has returned with the ambitious follow-up, “The Future’s Void,” which she has described as a “West Coast noise and sci-fi record.”
Like Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor” and St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness,” these songs seek to tackle big questions about the proliferation of screens and social media in our lives. “Basically my dystopian nightmare, which I’m just realizing right now,” she explained in an interview on Grantland, “is that by getting all this stuff for ‘free,’ everything now that’s important to us or that takes up our daily lives, advertisers have access to that and are tying it into a product of some sort.” On the album’s cover, Anderson wears an Oculus Rift headset, the virtual reality technology which Facebook ironically purchased for $2 billion just two weeks before the album’s release. Maybe her paranoia about corporations co-opting technology isn’t so far fetched.
Sonically, the record is decidedly digital on many tracks as well, with Anderson adopting a more expansive sound. Lead single “Satellites” is an industrial pop barrage of electronic distortion. The haunting ballad “3Jane” finds her singing over shimmering synths. Some of these songs are also Anderson’s most pop-oriented work to date, with gorgeous melodies brushing up against the noise. The aesthetic reveals Anderson’s complex relationship with technology; for all of its potentially troubling effects, there are aspects to embrace as well.
For all the discussion of surveillance and device obsession, technology mostly serves as a backdrop for decidedly personal songwriting. Standout “3Jane” addresses the vulnerability of social media, which she sneers is “all just a big advertising campaign.” Anderson agonizes over the need to separate the real self from one’s online persona, concluding, “Disassociation / I guess it’s just a modern disease.” The best songs on the album deftly ponder one’s changing sense of self in the digital landscape.
The fantastic “So Blonde” is a slice of 90s grunge-pop with shades of Kurt and Courtney. She bemoans the lack of female representation in the music industry, singing, “You wanna love her, hate her, you don’t know / but I think she’s all we’re gonna get.” She explained in a New York Times interview, “What do you do when the world only gives you one successful rocker-poet woman in your life, and that woman happens to be Courtney Love?” One of Anderson’s biggest fears is that technology is simply reinforcing the status quo of those already in power, and these fears contribute to the album’s sense of urgency.
A few of the critiques of technology come off as overly patronizing, such as when she asks, “Makin’ a living off of takin’ selfies / Is that the way that you want it to be?” on “Neuromancer.” On “3Jane,” she makes a rather cringe-worthy reference to the “interwebs.” On the whole, however, the album shines by focusing on the intimate confessions that characterize Anderson’s best work.
“Dead Celebrity,” the album’s final track, is a dirge-like song on reading about celebrity deaths online, complete with funeral organs and the sound of fireworks. Anderson sings, “Who can judge us? / Who can love us? / Who can blame the world and me / ‘Cause we wanted something timeless / In this world so full of speed.” It’s a resigned acceptance of the way the world is in 2014 — recognizing the superficiality of celebrity culture while also finding solace in it. “The Future’s Void” succeeds by working through the complicated emotions that technology elicits — both the negative and the positive. Through its ambitious concept, Anderson has managed to create a brilliant sophomore album that strives for something timeless by embracing the present.