EMA - Exile In the Outer Ring - Out Now
Red State, the first and only album by Erika M. Anderson’s late-2000s noise-folk trio, Gowns, opens with a bleak but hopeful spoken-word tableau. Over morbid drones, Anderson describes a soldier’s bedroom in Fargo, N.D., “with an American flag draped over a basement window.” She listlessly names the various drugs consumed one summer in that subterranean chamber. Titled “Fargo,” the brief track ends with an image of secular transcendence. Echoed by what sounds like a heavenly chorus of junkies, Anderson recalls that “the light shining in through the window was golden/And the days stretched out as far as the horizon/And you could see the dust flow like sparkles in the air.”
A decade later, Red-state rhetoric feels more suffocating than ever, Anderson is now the solo artist EMA, and her new album, Exile in the Outer Ring, ends with a similar scene. Her voice emerges from a mist of feedback as she recounts an escape attempt: “I ran away/To the darkest place that I could find:/A basement in the Outer Ring/It was an interior that was familiar to me/ The smoke, the blinds/Sometimes sunlight coming in/And sometimes street lamps/Brighter now than they used to be/Casting lines on beige carpeting.” This time, there’s no redemption to be found. Darkness pervades the squalid room, even with the lights on. “It seems to be closing in from around the edges,” Anderson whispers, “but it’s possible that it’s coming from inside you.”
Contrast these two views of American alienation: If the former is a vérité-style documentary on life in Anderson’s native Dakotas during George W. Bush’s hawkish, theocratic presidency, then the latter is a horror movie that captures the darkly surreal mood of the Trump era. Fargo is an actual city. The Outer Ring is an imagined territory that may substantially overlap with certain segments of the U.S. electorate, where broken dreams and desperation metastasize into a B-movie monster of uncontrollable rage.
Anderson has said that she finished writing Exile before the end of last year’s presidential primaries. Coming from an artist whose prescience about societal preoccupations yielded an entire album, 2014’s The Future’s Void, suffused with the same kind of technology anxiety that is fueling the current “fake news” panic, that’s entirely believable. And Exile’s timing might’ve made it a more complex work than it would have been if it had been composed after Trump’s victory. In the past few years, EMA has released a series of overtly political songs, from “Active Shooter” to her cover of Sinead O’Connor’s “Black Boys on Mopeds.” Accompanied by a lyric video in which phrases like “no hate” and “no xenophobia” appear over images of rural decay, Exile’s deceptively catchy first single, “Aryan Nation,” seemed to promise more of the same.
But the album turns out to be an atmospheric, character-driven narrative more than a polemic, and that makes it a more graceful political statement than the singles that preceded it. EMA doesn’t distance herself from the angry, poor, white, largely male milieu she understands intimately, having grown up in South Dakota. Instead, she channels her own leftist, female rage through the abject rhetoric of Middle America. She has described her persona on Exile as “a woman who swallowed a scumbag teen boy whole,” and the fusion of those two points of view is astonishingly seamless. At the chorus of “Aryan Nation,” Anderson’s voice goes from sweet to strained as she sings, “Tell me stories of famous men/I can’t see myself in them/We could steal, we could steal, we could steal/But we’re stealing from them.” A tornado of noise gathers before Anderson’s torrential vocals kick in and propel us through “33 Nihilistic and Female,” whose title is self-explanatory.
The Outer Ring has an aesthetic. It is the creeping dread of “Breathalyzer,” whose six minutes of jittery synths, echoing drum beats, and narcotized vocals paint a blurry picture of an intoxicated suburban couple in a landscape of big-box stores and parking lots. The music video follows a white woman with a nose ring, a bondage collar, and a baggy FUBU parka who rides with a male companion (gold chain, black baseball cap, red-tinted glasses) through a desolate suburban landscape. Anderson appears as a drug dealer, selling a glow-in-the-dark paste that the woman spreads under her long nails. This is a reminder that the Outer Ring isn’t exactly the real world, but rather an uncanny, impressionistic rendering of life on America’s fringes—dirtbag cyberpunk.
Anderson’s ideas and lyrics tend to be so compelling, they drown out any discussion of her songwriting. But it’s a mistake to consider her words or sounds in isolation, especially on Exile. The album is a bridge from EMA’s past to the present, fusing Red State’s drones and fuzz and political-made-personal portraiture with the dystopian sci-fi of The Future’s Void. From her excellent solo debut, 2011’s Past Life Martyred Saints, it takes pop vocal melodies and the sparse, explosive percussion of “California.”
What’s unique to Exile is the unreal world of the Outer Ring, which is as well developed in the music as it is in the lyrics and videos. To a base of noise, folk, and pop, Anderson adds industrial coldness, in the pounding and clanging of “Fire Water Air LSD” and the buzzsaw synths of “Breathalyzer.” These sounds will force many of us who are 33, nihilistic and female (especially if we’re white and grew up outside of any major urban center) to recall blasting Nine Inch Nails in grimy, ’90s bedrooms with disaffected white boys who might have grown up to be neo-Nazis. There is empathy in EMA’s insistence on revisiting that place and making us remember the anger it incubates, but don’t mistake Exile in the Outer Ring for some “understanding Trump’s America” thinkpiece. It’s a horror movie. It does not have a happy ending.