“The future is geopolitical,” declares Holly Herndon in her video for “Interference.” Or perhaps “declares” is the wrong term, as the words on the screen are not part of the song. Metahaven’s video also includes blank ads, miming the boxes that interfere with our enjoyment of videos; in similar fashion, folds of cloth interfere with our view of Herndon, while the music is comprised of fragments as tattered as the filmed flag.
Herndon provides fans with much to unpack: layers of meaning shrouded in mysterious vocal snippets, glued to shards of electronic beats and notes. There’s indeed a geopolitical tone to her speeches and interviews, in which she shifts from spokesperson to superstar, attempting to remain both outside and inside the system. Her public persona is an outgrowth of her compositional persona, as she comments and soundtracks, attacks and glides. The smooth surfaces and gleaming edges of her music lend it a futuristic sheen akin to that of the new generation replicants in “Ex Machina”, as the Tyrell Corporation once said, “more human than human.” But despite her public statements, socio-political observations bleed through the album only twice, on “Locker Leak” and “Lonely at the Top,” the two tracks that The Wire singled out as potential stumbling points.
Before we get to those tracks, it’s worth mentioning that Herndon’s cover seems to set her up as a potential dance star: the 80s appearance and oft-noted “wide-eyed ingenue” appearance of the artist are familiar touchstones. Given such strange ambitions, how fittingly ironic that she became The Wire‘s cover girl. While mocking the ambition of mainstream artists, Herndon landed in a similar arena, albeit in an alternate universe (Mica Levi preceding her by a month). On “Locker Leak,” she mocks the shallow advertising-based ambitions of the average consumer (“Be the first of your friends to like Greek yogurt this summer!”), but sets her sarcasm in the friendly framework of a Dr. Suess book. (“Whose socks? Sue’s socks.” ~ Fox in Socks. “Who lasts? Glass lasts. ~ Holly Herndon.) As playful as the track may be, it never loses the plot. Not so “Lonely at the Top,” which initially intrigues, but ultimately repels. It’s the only track to feature an extended monologue, which in this case is that of a massage therapist who sounds more like a sexbot or stalker as she proceeds. “You’re so special in so many ways. All of your achievements just seem like your natural right. I was lost before I met you, and I know so many other people were too. You make me feel so safe and secure. I don’t know what we would do without you, what I would do without you.” Is this an executive’s fantasy? It’s so extreme that it ends up being silly, which is certainly not Herndon’s point; a better substitute would have been last year’s “Recruit,” which shares some of the same material but little of the monologue.
The other tracks all work well, stripped of extraneous impositions. One can read more about their genesis and inspiration elsewhere – Herndon is generous when speaking about her work – but on a visceral level, Platform turns out to be exactly what the cover implies, an album to enjoy. While more intelligent than the average electronic-based album, it’s no less accessible, and while not quite suited for the dance floor, it contains all of the necessary components. The bass of the aforementioned “Interference” is strikingly confident, while the inclusion of former singles “Chorus” and “Home” highlights their durability. If these songs were to reach a nightclub, they would do so in stuttered fashion, “Chorus” glitching its way to the central bass and percussion while glittering fragments of voice reflect from the walls like light from a mirror ball. “Chorus” even includes the sound of glass breaking, à la C-Bank’s “One More Shot,” while “Home” includes the sound of someone running around the studio: as Björk would say, violently happy.
There’s plenty more where these came from, although for reasons of continuity, “Body Sound” is not included. (Body sounds, however, are.) The huge beats, massive-sounding production and layers of laptop genius make this an album of consistent, complex pleasures. Herndon’s voice is looped, bent and time-stretched. Seemingly disparate forces are melded, in particular, industrial and opera on “DAO”. Amnesia Scanner adds a rare singable chorus to “An Exit”, while Colin Self contributes a monastic tone to “Unequal”. Swap “Lonely at the Top” for “Recruit,” and the album is perfect, but even with that track, it inspires a reaction, which is far more than most music ever accomplishes. Platform is one of the finest albums we’ll hear all year. (Richard Allen)