In a world where levels of political engagement often feel frustratingly restricted, it is common to hear griping about a lack of politically engaged musicians and songwriters. Perhaps it’s more that these musicians are increasingly less likely to reside in the territory of the troubadours.
San Francisco based electronic collagist Holly Herndon’s music seems constructed as much as art as it is as fragmented pop music, enhanced by a multimedia element so strong it almost makes little sense to hear the music divorced from her dazzling, absorbing videos. Herndon also makes as convincing a contemporary case for the intertwining of the personal and the political as has been made in electronic music. With Platform, her strongest and most reputation enhancing statement to date (with label responsibilities shared between RVNG Intl and 4AD to reach a wider audience), she stands together with Matthew Herbert as a radical, intelligent artist exploring how, as Daniel Barenboim put it, “everything is connected”.
The three singles that have preceded Platform provide a perfect entry point into Herndon’s hermetic-sounding but outward-looking world. More predisposed to melodic lines than anything on her exhilarating but challenging debut Movement, the music here is fragmented but never incoherent. Indeed, the merging of form and content is expertly handled, as Herndon explores our dependance on the internet through clipped but sometimes euphoric melodic structures. Home might be even better, a song about the dark side of intimacy as a metaphor for NSA surveillance (“I know you know me better than I know me”). Herndon has spoken about the laptop as the most intimate of instruments, given the extent of the role it performs in our lives, and there is certainly something questioning and keenly aware about Herndon’s use of it to form these turbulent, compelling pieces.
Yet the two most defining features of Platform are, fortunately, also what makes it so arresting and compelling. The first is the collaborative nature of the project, such that a range of different approaches and voices are aired. Contemporary artist Spencer Longo is co-credited on Locker Leak, an almost overwhelming litany of insidious modern advertising techniques (“Be the first of your friends to like frozen yoghurt this summer”).
The second feature is the strong emphasis on the human voice in this music. Contrary to impressions that Herndon’s music might be cold and austere – the way in which voices (both her own and those of others) are deconstructed, fragmented and re-assembled provides the perfect form for her commentary on humanity’s interaction with technology. The machines speak through a human voice, and the human voices speak only through machines. Ideas dart around everywhere, flitting rapidly between channels, creating disorientating effects.
The resulting music exposes false dichotomies as it successfully incorporates the deeply strange (the extra-musical narrative of Lonely At The Top, the synaesthetic electro-cabaret of Unequal, which features drag performer Colin Self) and brightly melodic euphoria (the shimmering Morning Sun and the rhapsodic Chorus). Sometimes these elements combine within the same song (An Exit veers rapidly between mechanistic claustrophobia and bursts of colour). This is certainly a world to which the listener must yield completely. Very quickly, it becomes clear to expect the unexpected. Lonely At The Top is particularly perplexing, abandoning much of what might be conventionally understood to be music in favour of using sound and speech to create a physical, sensual and unsettling experience.
The issue for boldly contemporary albums such as Platform is whether they will still sound relevant in 20 or 30 years from now. If our relationship with technology continues developing at the same pace, it’s possible that much of Platform may feel quaint with alarming rapidity. Still, this is very much an album that feels necessary right now – one that packs a political punch without being didactic or evangelical – and offers positive thinking, including a clarion call of co-operative and community responses to global issues.