You don’t come across debut albums like EMA’s very often. Erika M. Anderson—who left the West Coast noise scene, which dismissed her “sing-songy shit,” in order to record said shit under her initials—didn’t arrive fully formed so much as startlingly direct. Past Life Martyred Saints laid bare physical and spiritual crises in ways few other artists ever have. Part of Anderson’s ingenuity as a songwriter and performer is the way she works against her affinity for pop aesthetics. She smears her fetching melodies with guitar fuzz, a lot of reverb, and multitracked vocals that make her sound like she’s singing from a very lonely cave.
That roughed-up gorgeousness is there on Anderson’s follow-up, The Future’s Void, though a lot else has changed. If Past Life Martyred Saints was inward to a fault, the new album is the opposite. Anderson has nothing less than all of humanity on her mind, specifically how technology shapes our relationships to others and ourselves. Lead single “Satellites” is a monster of a track, filled wall to wall with white noise that suggests somewhat misleadingly a move toward industrial rock. On it, Anderson repurposes Cold War paranoia for the Edward Snowden era: “I remember when the world was divided by a wall of concrete and a curtain of iron.” It’s almost as if Trent Reznor reimagined “Radio Free Europe,” and its dopamine rush is as intense as that sounds. And though it has nothing to do with what’s on the radio in 2014, it’s as undeniably “pop” a moment as EMA has had.
But “3Jane” is in many ways the album’s centerpiece, where Anderson shows her hand, and where the album’s cyber-emo themes start to undo themselves. The simple ballad, which sonically could fit on her debut, is lyrically little more than a collection of buzz words attempting profundity: “interwebs” (used, apparently, unironically), “superhighway,” “American superpower,” “modern disease.” (Those looking for Anderson’s thoughts on selfies and all things “new millennial” should skip ahead to “Neuromancer.”) At the end of “3Jane,” Anderson concludes that “it’s all just a big advertising campaign,” more than a little ironic given that ads for The Future’s Void have been hard to avoid on music websites (in her defense, she would probably say that’s the point). The album’s bloated middle section is full of such treatises like “Cthulu” and “Smoulder” about, well, after 30 or so listens, I’m still not entirely sure.
EMA is hardly the only artist wringing her hands over this whole ever-expanding Internet thing at the moment. Earlier this year, St. Vincent released “Digital Witness,” a nastily cynical bit of agitprop aimed at those poor oafs who sit on their couches watching TV. Damon Albarn’s “Everyday Robots” from his upcoming album, more poetically captures the alienation inherent in our reliance on connected devices. The problem with all of these harangues to some extent is that they assign the Internet more power than it actually has, and in the process leave the humans who built and wield it fading somewhere out in the distance.
That human element is left to a couple of buried gems on The Future’s Void: the sexy-scary “When She Comes,” about the beastly nature of a woman, and “Solace,” which is quite unlike anything else EMA has done and which might have pointed to a different way forward. Over an abrasive synth line provided by Washed Out’s Ernest Greene, Anderson sings beautifully of an abiding connection that defies geographical boundaries. The line “We make the constellations out of her beauty marks” recalls the physicality of Past Life Martyred Saints, and Anderson’s delivery is enough to raise the hairs on the back of your hand.
You can’t deny Anderson’s ambition. Yet what’s most disappointing of all about The Future’s Void is that, for all its heady ideas and pretty moments, in almost all ways it’s a regression from Anderson’s earlier work, a mishmash of half-completed thoughts that fails to ever fully connect. Anderson, working with a bigger indie label this time, opted to record once again at home, producing all the songs herself and only relying on help for mixing. Working in a studio with an experienced producer may have forced Anderson to be more decisive about what exactly The Future’s Void is, and what it’s saying. “This song came out in a flood,” Anderson says of “3Jane” in the press notes, which is exactly the problem: It needs an edit.