December 2, 2023

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Dear Nora: human futures Album Review

When Portland, Oregon’s Dear Nora reissued their second album, 2004’s Mountain Rock, in 2017, they went from being an obscure regional band to indie-folk cult heroes. The group’s frontperson, Katy Davidson, sang about searching for place and meaning in a crumbling world; the hollow guitars and wistful vocals sounded as if they were recorded deep in a cave. The reissue’s success galvanized Davidson to revive the group after an almost decade-long hiatus. In 2018 they released Skulls Example, a haunting follow-up to Mountain Rock. Like its predecessor, Skulls Example was minimal and moving, Davidson’s lyrics juxtaposing snapshots of the natural world—full moons, heat waves, birds sailing through the sky—with a looming sense of techno-deterministic dread. They documented without comment, noticing how each car they passed on a road trip brandished a GPS display, or how even small-town bars now boasted walls of flat-screen TVs. On Dear Nora’s latest album, human futures, Davidson delivers their late-capitalist critiques more pointedly, using coarser melodies and more vivid lyrics to express gnawing existential anxiety.

In an essay written in advance of human futures, Davidson called the new album the “culmination” of Dear Nora’s work so far. Thematically, they continue to contrast sublime naturalism with the mundane horrors of modern life: a purple beetle buzzing beside a bolo-tie-wearing content-mongerer; a narrator walking through mountainous fog while shaking off a dream of Lady Gaga; a speaker unable to admire the moon’s reflection on the water because they’re contemplating the death of democracy. But human futures is more than a series of off-kilter still lifes—it’s a record about gratitude, about small pleasures, about mourning humanity’s expanding disassociation from, and active destruction of, the Earth. Davidson swerves between awe and terror, attempting to soak in what’s left of the natural world before it’s gone.

So who’s to blame for this mess? Davidson has some ideas, taking aim at several contemptible archetypes. On “scrolls of doom,” they inhabit a persona who “makes billions in seconds flat” and wears a big honking cowboy hat, the sort of person who believes their money can be used to colonize other planets. There’s no reprieve from this claustrophobic ego; the only time the narrator connects with the outside world is when they give an almost erotic description of plastic stretching infinitely into the horizon. Similarly, on “airbnb cowboy”—which scans as a sort of spiritual cousin to Kim Gordon’s electrifying noise-rock anthem “Air BnB”—Davidson inhabits the voice of a post-truth, Joe Rogan-listening real-estate enthusiast who’s “got nothing to say… so content in every way.” Satiric and shrewd, these songs constitute the most overt political statements in Dear Nora’s oeuvre.

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