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Dec 17

My Pop Year: AUSTRA – “We Were Alive”

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Austra’s Future Politics was one of the first 2017 albums I heard, somewhere in the weeks of dread, defiance and hand-wringing around the Trump inauguration. It’s coloured how I hear it ever since. The title announces it as a ‘political’ album, the sleeve signals that the contents are likely to be cryptic. Austra’s Katy Stelmaris embraces our time of heightened nerves, this mode of being – which many lived in well before Trump – where ‘politics’ can exhaustingly infect every gesture. But she also rejects it, insists on ambiguity and a realm of private meaning.

Ambiguity is what makes “We Were Alive” work for me as a political song to remember 2017 by – resonating with both the crushing fear of January and, here in the UK, the baffled near-elation after June’s election. Stelmaris’ lightly-accented, rich and precise voice, and the throb and swell of the music, reminds me a little of ABBA’s “The Day Before You Came”, and “We Were Alive” shares some of that song’s sense of waking from a dream to find your life has changed in ways quite outside your control. But the singer in “We Were Alive” is thrilled by the purpose she’s found, the current the song sweeps her up in. “He knows it’s true / I believed in nothing before”

She could be singing about a lover or a guru, or a politician. Bernie or Jeremy or Justin. Or Donald. Austra’s LP came out at a time when the sensible press was full of macabre, flailing empathy – forget how the people Trump made no secret of targeting were feeling, go understand his voters. “We Were Alive”, in its stately ambiguity, the tug of its rhythm, its understanding of the urge to believe and belong, is as much understanding as I can take. “I think I see / How we’ve been cheated, the lies”. I feel that alright. So do the people on the other side. That recognition is itself both a kind of empathy, and empathy’s limit.

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