Exile In The Outer Ring by EMARelease date: August 25, 2017
Label: City Slang
The place described by EMA on her new album Exile In The Outer Ring is the Middle America where rural rubs up against the edges of the big city. This is not the middle class suburbs of bittersweet American sitcoms or even Arcade Fire’s album of the same name – the ‘outer ring’ is where the working classes, the artists, the immigrants and the desperate rural poor have been pushed to – victims of gentrification and unemployment. The places and people in EMA’s songs do not inhabit a psychogeographic way station in the way the kids do on Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs album. This is not a rites of passage, there is no narrative arc and very little optimism, it’s just a reality, and one that Erika M. Anderson knows first-hand, having deliberately retreated to a basement apartment in Oregon after her last album Past Life Martyred Saints.
It starts with the untypical ‘Seven Years’ an elegy to a bad relationship of some sort, it is sanguine but quietly triumphant, Anderson’s voice and piano virtually unadorned by the humming electronica and multi-tracked vocals at work on the rest of the album. It’s the sound of a fresh start and so it’s is startling then, that the rest of the songs take place among warehouses, tacky casinos, strip malls and the back seats of shitty cars. But as EMA says –
“I’m actually pro-Outer Ring… It’s where the freaks and the artists and the culture are going to end up, and it could be beautiful if it doesn’t destroy itself first.”
To colour her scenes she has employed sounds and moves of some of the most successful musical chroniclers of dread and urban alienation; there’s the throb and pulse of Suicide, the glitchy beats and fuzzy riffs of Nine Inch Nails, the bleak siren call of PJ Harvey and even a Banshee’s bass line on ‘Always Bleeds’. And yet, at the heart of everything is EMA’s incredible voice, at turns warm, passionate, heartbroken, snarling or just laconically cool, she swarms around your ears during every song, an all-encompassing and powerful presence.
I struggle to think of another recent album that so successfully realises the artists stated concepts or themes and nothing betters second track ‘Breathalyzer’ in conveying that darkness at the edge of town. There’s a girl, there’s a car, there are drugs and there’s a night out, but there is very little of the imagined glamour of the gleaming metropolis. EMA’s lyrics remain totally non-judgmental and yet the desperation and sadness contained within it are almost unbearable as the shrill synths come to a climax. It is, I would say, perfect.
Not every track plays out as fully as ‘Breathalyzer’– a couple of songs seem to be the victim of EMA’s restless nature, so that as soon as the scene and mood is set she is ready to move on before the music has had a chance to create any sort of closure… then again, that may be the point. This really is a very minor quibble as there is never a dull moment or any trace of flabby, musical excess on Exile In The Outer Ring.
This album was written before Trump came to power but EMA is more obviously critical on ‘Aryan Nation’, a withering look at the types of thuggish men who dominate levels of U.S. culture and have shaped the current climate, given their heads by years of entitlement they “throw down at the least provocation…”
Despite the high standards throughout I do have my favourites, and amidst the vibes of fear and loathing are a couple of moments that display pop nous and a winning playfulness to EMA. The pounding ‘Fire Water Air LSD’ cops a cheeky line from ‘Welcome to The Jungle’ by Guns N’ Roses, a song about the dangers of the city, sung by a boy originally from Indiana. ‘Down and Out’ – sample lyric “Everybody thinks you’re worthless when you’re down and out” marries a plea for sympathy and understanding for those who find themselves in tough circumstances to a bouncy, clipped, ska riff more at home on a Lily Allen chart hit.
Whatever the musical style employed though, the star of the show is EMA’s vocals, and on ‘Blood and Chalk’ and brilliantly titled ’33 Nihilistic and Female’ we get both ends of her range. ’33…’ is almost bratty, a mix of Peaches sneer and the surfer dude metal yelp of Perry Farrell, whilst on the sparse, almost torch song drama of ‘Blood and Chalk’ she is vulnerable, poised and utterly divine. Her performances are all achieved without any obvious effort or strain, she always sounds absolutely in control, another example of the utter focus that is maintained throughout this album.
Exile In The Outer Ring will only enhance EMA’s reputation as a talented and fascinating artist. You get the feeling there’s much more to come from Erika M. Anderson.