There are artists I’ve spent a lot of time with in the past only never to return to them. This review was an opportunity to rediscover such an artist.
The last time I listened to Austra, other than my recent revisit to all my CDs (aka the longest Twitter thread of all time), was in the car on a week long road trip around Scotland in 2014. The CD in question was Olympia. I didn’t love it, but we listened to it a lot and it grew on us – just not quite enough to listen to it again over the following six years. Let’s see if her latest, HiRUDiN, can inspire me any better.
First to the title. Hirudin is a chemical in leech saliva that stops blood clotting so that the leech can keep on feeding from its victim. It’s a break up album for sure, so I’m guessing the title is a clunky metaphor for the soured relationship, the ex, the breakup, or possibly all three.
So in the spirit of the leech, I’ve been coming back to this album again and again over the last month to try and get something out of it. It’s an obvious thing to say, but if you love or hate something, the extreme emotion that it inspires in you makes it so much easier to write about. And Austra gets this. Her inspiration for HiRUDiN is clear from the get go with opening lyric “you make me so angry, I love you, I love you”. Both extremes are recognised in one beastly knot of emotion. The track reflects this contrast; it haunts you and makes you want to dance at the same time. Yet, like much of the album, it ends up landing somewhere in between, expressing neither anger nor hate.
‘All I Wanted’ is up next. Simple jolly pizzicato strings stand awkwardly against “you fucked it up, what you did to me”. She pulls her musical punches again. “When your family comes back to town, do you know what you’ll say when they ask about me?” she asks on ‘Your Family’. This is some complex stuff. Unfortunately the song that could have been just isn’t there.
Austra’s voice was always a bit Marmite. It’s certainly unique but occasionally she pushes the irritating button a bit too hard. On ‘Mountain Baby’ she does herself no favours by bringing on board another, more polished, singer in Cecile Believe. But with the huge contrast in voice and production on her parts, when Austra’s vocals return, struggling to hold a long note, they’re incredibly grating. The falsetto chorus on ‘Risk It’ pushes it too far. Skip.
Skipping to ‘It’s Amazing’ is worthwhile though and begins a three-song section where Austra’s quirky/poppy/dancey songwriting comes to the fore. ‘I Am Not Waiting’ is the most fully realised pop song here.
On Olympia, Austra seemed vaguely sad but it was impenetrable. On HiRUDiN she wears her heart on her sleeve lyrically, but the mood of the music remains vague. I want to like this album, and I want to say nice things about it. And I feel bad for not being more positive. But the harder I try the harder it is. Maybe the chemical isn’t doing its job. Maybe it’s already had the life sucked out of it. Maybe it just doesn’t taste any good. Who knows? The emotions of HiRUDiN are too complex to express in terms of leeches and their feeding habits. Perhaps Austra found them too complex to express in song. But without them we’re both inspired to only indifference.
Words by James Spearing