Hillary Jean Young reflects on Austra’s 2011 debut, an album that’s grown and shifted alongside them over the last decade.
It’s a pretty standard teenage experience to have the music you like or the fandoms you subscribe to feel like a part of your identity. When you are a young queer person, perhaps that is even more true. When you are not yet able to articulate your experience, having your favourite band do it for you, even abstractly, is all the more meaningful. Reflecting on Austra’s Feel It Break, I remember what it was like to hear an album that felt like it was made for me and only years later understanding why that was.
Feel It Break was released three weeks before my 19th birthday; I’d just finished my third year of music school and my first year as an out queer person. My older sister was working for Paper Bag Records at the time, and most birthdays and Christmases involved an LP mailer with two or three of PBR’s latest and greatest arriving at my door. I can’t remember exactly when I received Feel It Break, but it quickly became an important part of my collection, for its mastery as well as its honesty.
“Darken Her Horse” is as intricate as it is elusive. This track unfolds in a way that defies expectations, maintaining its mystery while opening into an absolutely euphoric bridge. Lyrically, this dichotomy of control and freedom is mirrored in the lines: “Hold her by the reins / The moon isn’t far / Hold her by the reins / It’s worth it to stay”.
“Lose It” is simultaneously an absolute bop and also completely devastating. Austra may not have invented the genre of “despair you can dance to”, but I can say that Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” walked so “Lose It” could run. This track is complex and driving, shifting between a technicolour synth palette and restrained, duetting vocals and keys. Katie Stelmanis’s range and expressivity are undeniable, and “Lose It” feels like our first taste of a voice that is exceptional in its strength as well as its sensitivity.
Feel It Break is highly corporeal both in its visceral intensity and sensuality. “The Villain” is unrelenting, ominous even, but also centred by Stelmanis’s vocal delivery. Lyrically, Feel It Break is grounded in bodily experience: from pain and desire (“The pleasure’s still the same/She gets sicker”) down to our matter itself (“I want your blood/I want it in my hair”). This is music for bodies in all their messiness and imperfection. It still feels unbelievably radical that a queer artist would openly write, sing, and record a lyric like “I came so hard in your mouth,” as if affirming that we, too, have a right to pleasure in its most basic form.
Ten years and two graduate degrees later, I could theorize all day about how queerness permeates this record and why that has made it a vital record for me and probably many others. But my connection to Feel It Break feels more complex than that. For instance, how could I have known on my first listen that four years later, I’d be listening to this record on a first date? Or how two years after that, I’d be at an Austra show getting elbowed in the face, only to have three queers in the near vicinity ask if I was okay? Or how two years after that, my first job after I graduated would be at Paper Bag Records, sitting in the same office where my sister had packaged and shipped Feel It Break to me in the first place? An album can resonate with one specific moment in your life, forever shaping how you relive those memories, but it is exceptional when an album grows alongside you. Feel It Break feels familiar yet evergreen, renewing and shifting in meaning, ready for when I need it the most.