Album Review: Austra – HiRUDiN

[Domino; 2020]

It is baffling that Austra are not on top of the world. Katie Stelmanis has been delivering consistently big beats and sing along hooks for years, and her latest, HiRUDiN, is another notch on a belt which is tightening its grip on pop supremacy.

While her past work is oft described as ‘icy’, here she is edging further towards tropical. This is daring, given that it’s her most inwardly-pointing album to date and sees her tackling power dynamics, relationships and the self – but her instrumentally upbeat approach is compelling. The simple synths of “How Did You Know?” and the shrill autotune hook of “Risk It” are signs of an artist reveling in their freedom. This is encapsulated in lyrics like, “If I lose my way I don’t care,” or the clear-cut sense of self that is found on “Messiah” as Stelmanis sings: “A balance will settle between us / you’ll be the body / I’ll be the spine.” It’s a glittery romance ballad for the modern era – one not about huge overwhelming feelings and unrequited love, but about partnership and overcoming the ubiquitous toxicity that can seep even into the best of things.

A cure to all of that poison, Austra’s angelic voice has long been the standout of her music, and that’s still the case here. “It’s Amazing” retains that sweeping, almost operatic drama that we associate with Stelmanis. While the lyrical content here might be somewhat cliché – “I don’t wanna be afraid / I don’t wanna be a fool” – there is more unity and restraint, and somehow these have created more expression. The yearning breakdown at the end falls ever gently away with the calmness of a cascading waterfall.

Then there is the bursting “Mountain Baby”, which features fellow Canadian Cecile Believe (fka Mozart’s Wife) and is Austra’s most experimental track to date. It opens with bright piano and a group kids singing, which is reminiscent of the summery rap of Jurassic 5, and it only gets weirder from there – delightfully so.

To this mind, there’s no question that Austra is one of the most underrated pop artists working today. The forceful refrain of “I’m over you” to a bass-driven synth on “I Am Not Waiting” should be being screamed in clubs, fields and bedrooms across the globe. It’s pure 90s hedonism with a dash of modern empowerment and melancholia. And really, ask yourselves, what could be a better antidote to your problems than that?