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Review: Austra, 'Future Politics'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

Austra, <em>Future Politics</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Austra, Future Politics

The notion of Utopia doesn't have a lot of currency these days, but that hasn't stopped Katie Stelmanis. The creative force behind the Canadian electronic outfit Austra, she's used the project's new album, Future Politics, to foment a kind of radicalism in an age of doom and gloom: making music that questions, confronts and uplifts without scaremongering or sugarcoating.

She's also not being shy. "Utopia," the album's lead single, telegraphs her intent with unabashed optimism. Amid sculpted beats and soaring melodies, Stelmanis sings of urban life and alienation in an era of social division and injustice. But she's militant about lining those dark clouds with silver — or, as she puts it, "I can picture a place where everybody feels it, too / It might be fiction, but I see it ahead." The song's video, as visually striking as a sci-fi film, underscores the haunting loneliness that gives dimension to Stelmanis' optimism. In "43," she shifts the focus outward, singing from the perspective of someone who lost a loved one in the mass kidnapping and massacre of 43 young men in Iguala, Mexico, in 2014. Mournful and eerie, the song tackles tragedy with sensitivity underpinned by outrage — and its backing track mesmerizes with low-frequency pulses and ghostly harmony.

On Austra's previous two albums, 2011's Feel It Break and 2013's Olympia, Stelmanis honed her spacious, minimalist synth-pop to an icy edge. That hasn't changed a lot on Future Politics, though the record's atmospheric sprawl feels more immersive than ever. Not that it doesn't have its share of relatively upbeat cuts. "Freepower," for all its allusive discussion of chains, fortresses and "tradition we delete," is an unflagging dance-pop anthem. So is the album's title track: With a bubbling rhythm reminiscent of vintage LCD Soundsystem and an infectious, defiant refrain — "I'm never coming back here!" — "Future Politics" is the sound of Austra flexing its considerable electro chops.

"But I sigh 
/ What if we were alive?" Stelmanis coos frostily in "We Were Alive" before adding, "Doctor, what's the cure for apathy?" Throughout Austra's new album, some variation on that question is asked again and again, sometimes openly and sometimes implicitly. Even "Angel In Your Eye" — which, on its surface, is a throbbing paean to lust on the digitized domain of the dance floor — hints at the way romance and sensuality can energize us in other ways: "Baby, if I hadn't known you then / I couldn't even start the fire." Whether cloaking itself in code, dipping into metaphor or flying proclamations up the flagpole, these 11 songs offer a bracing, coolly tuneful vision of tomorrow that refuses to submit to inertia. In an era when simply resisting dystopia can seem idealistic, Future Politics dares to hope big.

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