EMA is cool. It’s an established fact. She has big, fat storm clouds in her eyes. She’s brooding and sloppy and humid and careless, and she seems to be making up all her own rules. She’s both really distracted and really direct — too far, too close — placeless, in a way, or maybe just blurry. In photos, she always has something hiding her face. She likes to photograph herself with words and sometimes other faces projected onto her face. Her face barely holds together as a face — it’s more like a jumpy set of ideas about a face. She certainly has a lot of ideas. Even when she’s doing something that seems stupid or destructive, it always turns out to be really smart in the end, making you feel a little less cool (but also a little more cool because now you’ve learned something). She’s really smart, and she should be put in charge of things.
EMA is a very recent type of cool person. She could not have existed before 1994 — another fact. She’s pre-millennial — grunge-y and grrrl-y — and now a little late, which is a good thing. She’ll always be a little outside of time, outside the scene — between scenes — which maybe accounts for her blurriness, but also explains why she’s so well equipped to manage the big things that bother people today — you know, “input too ordinary to process and input too intense to bear.” I like how EMA inhabits this time — lo-fi and lazy and then suddenly angry and righteous — but it’s all on her. You might even say she has a stylish relation to time, one that maybe some other people might like to imitate. Another way of putting this is that EMA’s music is so good that it makes you think about history. I don’t mean that she sings about capital-H history, even though she does often sing about capital-H history. But she is so engaged with her world that you can hear history in her music — history moving — not in any superficial way of being trendy or fashionable, but the larger shapes of things, the larger moving relations between people and things and spaces. This strikes me as a very cool thing to be able to do.
EMA’s new album The Future’s Void seems not just a couple of years late (her solo debut was released in 2011), but about 20 years late. If some musical prankster told me that this album came out in 1994, I don’t think I would be able to tell the difference. It’s a pre-topical topical album — or maybe a post-topical one. Again, placeless. No one really needs more songs about the Internet or Satellites or Selfies or Dead Celebrities. No one wants to hear songs that go quiet-LOUD-quiet anymore or listen to a whole album that goes quiet-LOUD-quiet, back and forth between piercing industrial noise and clever, ironic little ditties. It’s a testament to EMA’s talent, though, that she is able to use these indie grunge clichés, make them seem fresh, and show us why they were so powerful in the first place. With The Future’s Void, she turns back to the music of her youth — Kurt and Courtney, her favorites, as well as NIN and Manson, and then Garbage, The Breeders, Throwing Muses, etc. Her album inhabits the whole shitty world that those musicians were only just beginning to see and reject. As she sings on “3Jane,” one of the prettiest clever and ironic little ditties on the record, “Feel like I blew my soul out/ Across the interwebs and streams/ It was a million pieces/ Of silver and I watched them gleam.” At the risk of being a little reductive, I’d say that 90s musicians had two ways of dealing with the impending technocalypse, by either championing the human ghost in the machine or casting it out forever into the digital sprawl. Grunge — in all its bi-polar quiet-LOUD-quiet depression — seems like some last-ditch plaid-and-timberland-ed protest against the imminent destruction of life by the whole digital-media-cum-entertainment mess. The Future’s Void, in turn, takes its stand on grunge as a sustainable tradition — EMA calls it “meta-grunge” — uploading it straight to the cloud in order to explode it from within.
The Future’s Void is not nearly as charming or even as personal as EMA’s debut, 2011’s Past Life Martyred Saints (which has a really nifty song about fooling around in your mom’s house, called “Breakfast”). It’s a slicker, more professional, and more abstract matrix-y record that might put off any fans of the singer’s lo-fi confessional work. The endearing emotional sloppiness of the debut is exchanged here for a set of colder, more theoretical observations about Life in the Age of the Net. Gone also is the large sonic sprawl — songs that meander and ride into each other on long waves of noise — all that’s replaced here by a much tighter, more controlled series of tunes with recognizable pop structures. The big difference between the two albums, though, concerns the musician’s relation to time and place. Whereas Past Life Future Saints was anchored in EMA’s youthful relation to California (tortured, yes, but also grounded), The Future’s Void has her set adrift in a world without any geographical markers or temporal horizons &mdahs; i.e., hyperspace. The album’s first track — the industrially noisy “Open the Satellites” — depicts a life torn between two eras and two different experiences of space: the paranoid closure of the cold war and the terrifying openness of the fully-blown digital era. Backed by electric pulses and sinister army-of-droids handclaps, EMA sings, “I remember when the world was divided/ By a wall of concrete and a curtain of iron/ Still they put a man up into space/ And we go there each night alone in the waste/ You’ve to open the satellites.” Sure, she’s no Manuel Castells, but the song is powerful in its human sense of scale and its finely drawn ambivalence. Note how EMA calls for more, not fewer, satellites, balancing the open pleasures of digital chaos against the pains of digital alienation. Her vocal performance is punctuated by kinky moans and pained yelps: the satellites of love open up here like giant galactic wounds, both aggressive and erotic. (I don’t know why other critics are always reductively saying this song is “about” Edward Snowden and the NSA.)
cover art for “Satellites” single
What I like about this album is that EMA often seems overwhelmed by the forces she confronts, but she always manages to locate something fierce and strong in the end. She comes into her own here as a vocalist, too, and she uses the elemental textures of her voice — breathy and then fiery and then rock-hard often in the same line — to convey this struggle to keep her power and sense of self intact. The above-mentioned “3Jane” stands out in this way, even after several dozen listens. A slow-burner if there ever was one, the song begins with a chilly reverb’d piano vamp (think Walkmen) and a throbbing two-beat tom (think Shangri-Las). EMA whispers her way into the mix to outline the pains of losing bits of your self — via selfies, Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, etc. — on the internet. What makes the song unique is its singer’s all-too-human admission that she could never possibly cover the complexity of these transactions and that her song itself resembles a cliché, its very distribution only adding to the digital clutter. She sings, “I don’t want to sell you anything/ I don’t want to put myself out/ And turn it into a refrain/ It’s all just a big advertising campaign,” but it’s really the brave and guileless movement of her voice — the way, for example, it rises to a clear, bell-like tone and then, falling down the scale, scrapes against its own lower register — that really expresses her pain and confusion.
No doubt, with this album, EMA is thinking about her own place in the contemporary media-scape and whether or not she can capture the attention of its audience without losing herself in the process. The well-read listener will notice that “3Jane” takes its title as well as its theme from a character in William Gibson’s Neuromancer. In fact, the whole album is inspired by a strain of weird, pulpy pop culture — not just Gibson, but also H.P. Lovecraft and the industrial pop of Reznor and Manson. The long and sinewy “Chthulu” name-checks Lovecraft’s dark tentacular creation in order to explore the singer’s own seething sub rosa impulses. “Neuromancer” pretty much cops the whole plot of, well, Neuromancer, to provide — with its foreboding reggaeton beat — something like a PSA about the dangers of data mining on the internet. Its tempting to think how these sources might be helping EMA make the transition to a more mainstream audience while keeping her deviant alt-cred intact. Elsewhere, though, she takes a more straightforward approach, indulging in the grunge-pop styles of the 90s without a hint of remorse. “So Blonde” has the quiet-LOUD-quiet (or mumble-SHRIEK-mumble) formula down pat; from drumbeat to guitar lick to the harmonic bridge to the very space of the mix, “So Blonde” is so derivative that you just have to laugh, but so good that your laughter becomes a real part of enjoying the song. Similarly, “When She Comes” is the kind of lazy jokey strummer that would have made The Pixies or Pavement or The Lemonheads proud. With its warmly winking lyrics about riot grrrls and psilocybin nightmares and terraforming, as well as its ridiculously foreshortened feedback-squelched guitar solo, it still has me grinning from ear to ear.
But I’m at that stage of my love affair with EMA and her music that I can pretty much justify anything she does. Frankly, there’s a lot on this album that made me wince at first — not just her use of defunct musical genres or her weirdly belated critiques of internet culture, but little quibbling things, like the semantic inappropriateness of the phrase “open the satellites” and her stale appropriation of the jokey misnomer “interweb.” I certainly felt like a dork in all of this, especially since I quickly found out that the force of her personality and the glaring strength of her music incorporates all of these flaws and more. I like EMA’s missteps and mistakes as much as I like her successes. They’re just as interesting, at least, and make me feel like I’m listening to a living person instead of some entertainment machine.
In this regard, I just want to point out one more song, and then I’ll allow you to discover the rest of the surprises on your own. The last song on The Future’s Void is “Dead Celebrity,” and it’s just a terrific song about searching for pictures of dead celebrities on the internet. Melodically, it sounds like a piece of classic American military music — think “Battle Hymn of the Republic” — complete with popping firework sounds and cannon shots. But I love how EMA redirects our attention and respect for the nation’s dead; her performance is strikingly tender toward all of those celluloid sacrifices — Brittany Murphy appears in the liner notes — and her compassion remains intact even as she sketches out the existential horrors of modern life and the general shitshow that is the US entertainment biz. But EMA really wants to know what drives this point-and-click passion and whether anything human can be salvaged from it, and so she brilliantly structures her song as a series of questions for the listener. In the first verse, she asks you what you’re looking for when you start clicking away, and then she confronts you again, at the end, but now asks you to “Close your eyes and/ Picture legend/ Tell me what you wanna see/ When you click on the link/ Of the dead celebrity.” It’s a chilling moment — a minor change with major implications, one that pretty much enacts all she wants to say about the self that lingers in a “world so full of speed.” In the end, EMA asks us to turn it all off, to shut down the console, or at least close your eyes for a second, because in that disconnection, in the loss of media life, you finally get to experience the power and pleasure you were looking for all along.