My Electric Family (Drag City, 2009)
originally published at Dusted Magazine
One of cinema’s most sympathetic recent characters is a post-human robot who likes to unwind, after a long day of rooting around the dusty carcass of big-box America, by studying a Betamax tape of Hello, Dolly! Each time he watches it, there’s this haunting suspension, in which the charm and innocence of a flickering dance number on a rusty screen make the world seem simple and good, even though everything else in the frame has been painstakingly arranged to prove otherwise.
Annabel Alpers is casually, unsettlingly good at producing this effect. Nearly every song (including one called “Dream Sequence”) on My Electric Family, her second full-length under the Bachelorette moniker, has a bright, jubilant point of coalescence about midway through, where the themes that have been twitching and burbling about on their own come together and imply resolution, contentment, sufficiency. And these moments are as misleading as they are charming: on anything broader than a moment-to-moment scale, it’s simply not possible to hear optimism in My Electric Family. Just alienation, boredom, futuristic nervousness.
Does that contrast between the whole and its parts constitute an argument? Maybe. Alpers told Dusted’s Jennifer Kelly earlier this year that My Electric Family is about “[her] own relationship with machines” and “thinking about machines as being [her] family,” but then it also says on her Myspace page that she “took too many mushrooms and fell in love with a computer.” You believe both.
Whatever the project, it’s the reckless play between heavy and light that makes Family more than an electro-pop curiosity. Alpers is smart, you can tell immediately, yet the album feels carefully scrubbed of identifying marks, swinging between Flaming Lips-size pomp and Laurie Anderson-style catatonia, between anachronistic disco squelch (“Mindwarp”) and scorched-earth austerity (“The National Grid”), in what seems a lot like indifference. Her voice, a husky croon that recalls Nico’s except when it’s encrypted, registers emotion, but it’s not clear which one. Her lyrics would be affecting without that extra layer of deadpan. “Life’s too short for us not to hang out / When he’s in attendance and mixing about,” she says listlessly of a bionic beau in “Mercurial Man.” “I feel fine, life is fine / Life is generally fine / In my miiiiiiiiind.”
That’s what passes for a love song; it’s equally hard to buy the future-shock stuff at face value when Alpers lays out the specs of her dystopia in songs like “Her Rotating Head” and “Technology Boy” (the latter a telegenic update of “O Superman,” minus warmth and punctuation). Should you take “Technology girl is technology boy’s wife but he does not yet see her / He is blinded by his oppression” as premonition, or as kitsch? Does it matter?
There’s something to be said for that evasiveness, although once again it’s not clear what. Family is so opaque and, well, mercurial that there’s nearly nothing to hang a lasting interpretation on, and maybe that’s what’s making Alpers so uneasy about the future: maybe it really is like this album, a lonely place where the sun is always shining. But it’s worth going there with your own baggage, figuring out for yourself what Alpers means, before a really forward-thinking car commercial decides for you.back