The Future’s Void sounds like it’s the most deliberate music that EMA has ever made. It’s easy to imagine the West Coast artist’s 2011 studio debut, Past Life Martyred Saints, unfurling as a single jam: Each song bleeds into the next, while lyrical motifs recur effortlessly. One song, “Marked”, was actually laid to tape at the precise moment it was being written. The album feels as natural as if the whole thing were recorded live in EMA’s basement. Erika M. Anderson’s follow-up to that release, meanwhile, feels much more calculated. Lyrically, it dances around a single theme: human life in the wake of the digital renaissance. But despite its gloomy title, The Future’s Void finds genuine moments of hope and grace in the face of all the static.
Unlike some artists who find themselves endowed with additional resources after the success of a debut, Anderson doesn’t smooth over her lo-fi grain. The songs here are instantly recognizable as hers, even though many of them are fringed with piano, violin, and other instruments far from the world of Saints. Void widens Anderson’s scope enough for her to write the songs her subject matter demands.
If we learned anything from Reflektor, it’s that writing songs about the Internet is a Big Project. The Future’s Void might clock in at a comfortable 44 minutes, but it shares ambition with Arcade Fire’s enormous double album. Like Win Butler, Anderson feels no need to be coy about her engagements with the web, but she approaches the material from a remarkably different angle. While “Reflektor” admonished ‘net users like a dad telling his teen to turn off her iPhone at the dinner table, songs like “3Jane” and “Neuromancer” illuminate the inner life of someone who relies extensively on digital communication. “Neuromancer” could be a direct rebuttal to “Reflektor”; where Butler sees a house of mirrors built to amuse the vain, Anderson sees a place where she’s able to survive as an artist.
Writing a piece of music with a thesis in mind can be dangerous, though, and at its weakest moments, The Future’s Void gets talky, clunky, and overly reliant on external sources. Despite its fierceness at the top of the album, “Satellites” plays with imagery I can’t quite grasp: What would it mean to “open” a satellite? Is this about the NSA? Anderson also darts in and out of the world of Neuromancer, the 1984 novel by William Gibson that more or less invented the cyberpunk genre. Though “3Jane” is named after one of the book’s characters, I can’t help but see a kinship with 4chan, as though the former were the feminine version of the infamous imageboard. The song’s lyrics reinforce this harmony as Anderson wrestles with how selfhood has changed under the Internet’s infinite refraction. When your words and likeness can be replicated by strangers forever, where do you begin or end?
“Feel like I blew my soul out/ Across the interwebs,” EMA sings on “3Jane” (yes, she says “interwebs,” and no, it’s not cutesy). “It left a hole so big inside of me/ And I get terrified that I will never get it back again.” If the camera captures something of the soul, what happens when that sliver disperses instantaneously around the world? Later in the song, she expresses a yearning for real communication over personal branding. “I don’t want to sell you anything/ I don’t want to put myself out and turn it into a refrain,” she sings as she enters the song’s actual refrain. Sometimes selling yourself out is as inevitable as a song’s return to its chorus.
The most celestial moments on The Future’s Void arrive at the end, when Anderson loosens her grip on her subject matter and lets herself wander a little. “Solace” is a troubled love song that runs on a synth riff meaty enough to occupy the slot usually reserved for an electric guitar. It’s a slower song that feels fast, rippling by like a city seen through a train window. At the refrain, “She gets solace holding on to me,” Anderson pronounces “solace” like “soulless,” and maybe she means both. Finally, the song erupts into the album’s most masterful couplet: “We make the constellations out of the beauty marks/ We make the constellations out of the falling stars.” Maybe there’s no future for us — maybe the sky is indeed falling — but at least we can trace something beautiful in the now.
The album finishes with “Dead Celebrity”, a funereal tune with a melody seemingly pulled from a children’s songbook. “We can seize our jealousy/ For the dead celebrity,” Anderson sings, as if showing what’s open in her browser in the scene from Saints where she’s “so sad, all alone on the computer.” What are we really doing when we post “RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman,” a tribute to a person we never knew, on Facebook? Do we use his death to frame our own, or are we simply broadcasting evidence of our niceness, our sensitivity? “We wanted something timeless in this world so full of speed,” Anderson suggests. Maybe it’s only that: When a celebrity dies, they exit the rush. They’re preserved, finally safe from aging, and gossip, and poor career decisions. Cut off from its source, a fractured identity congeals. A dead celebrity is the opposite of a living artist, who has to push herself through the online kaleidoscope daily. We envy the dead for their purity. They have “unplugged” in the most profound sense.
Essential Tracks: “Solace”, “Dead Celebrity”, and “Neuromancer”