EMA: The Future's Void review – dystopian angst with a personal touch
Erika M Anderson's second album mines a rich seam of digital despair to stirring effect
There were few more arresting songs in 2011 than EMA's California, a track taken from her solo debut, Past Life Martyred Saints. It started with ersatz thunder and lightning, a link to Erika M Anderson's recent past playing in uncompromising drone bands. "Fuck California, you made me boring," she spat, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon reincarnated as a 6ft South Dakotan.
The song was an organ-strewn hymn to all that Anderson left behind when she moved to the coast: the violence, the love. California was not all it was cracked up to be. "Tried to tell me love was free," EMA sneered. She named the friends and small-town misfits she abandoned – far more interesting souls than LA's demimonde hipsters. "I'm just 22/ I don't mind dying," EMA declared at one point. That wasn't dramatic 20-nothing posturing but a lift from Bo Diddley. Later there was another lift, this time from Camptown Races. California was fractured and complicated, and an unequivocally great track.
The small-scale success of Past Life Martyred Saints set Anderson on a trajectory towards The Future's Void, a record that mulls overexposure and the virtualisation of our lives. By most standards of fame, Anderson is still a minnow. (She knows that. She's not whining. ) But EMA became alarmed at the degree to which the internet demands the surrender of all privacy; how it exposes musicians to the unbridled personal attacks of anonymous commenters, just for having made a piece of music, and having the gall to want to sell it to people in order to eat. While she was writing it, Edward Snowden happened. She's spooked. We should all be.
"I remember when the world was divided by a wall of concrete and a curtain of iron," she seethes, almost nostalgically, on Satellites, an electronic pop song that grows catchier with every play. 3Jane, meanwhile, is gentler, a ballad to the self she lost control of – the selves we're all losing control of – shattered into little 1s and 0s.
Making good art about the internet is difficult, not least when conservatoire rocker St Vincent is covering similar territory on songs such as Digital Witness. In a few years these concerns might seem dated. In the meantime there's the fact that EMA can't avoid stumbling into potholes best avoided. There's a reference to "the interweb", and titles – Neuromancer and Cthulhu – drawn too overtly from William Gibson and HP Lovecraft. A crass phrase like "the future's void", meanwhile, misadvertises a thoughtful album that owes something to the blues as well as science-fiction dystopias or the negativity of industrial rock. The Future's Void isn't just about the internet, but warped futurologies of all kinds. 100 Years alludes to the influenza epidemic, the Great War, and phonographs and flying machines – harbingers of an old, uncertain future.
Being a statuesque blonde woman in rock, Anderson has long negotiated the demands of image creation; the lacuna between "serious artist" and "hot alterna-chick". There's something of that struggle on So Blonde, a scuzzed-up psychedelic pop song that owes a little to Courtney Love's curdled peroxide howl. It would be all too easy to make an unlistenable noise record about disassociation and future fear. EMA makes sure these are songs, first and foremost. And they are still personal. Smoulder wonders whether making music is worth it. "If I forsake everything baby," Anderson asks, buried in vocal effects, "will you still be here?"