The Political and the Transcendent: On EMA’s “Exile in the Outer Ring”

When it comes to punk rock, anniversaries are a weird thing. In 2007, the noise-punk band Gowns released their one and only full-length album, titled Red State. At that time, the concept of red states and blue states as a means for understanding American politics was at its apex. Much of what gave Red State its power then–and still does–came from singer/guitarist Erika M. Anderson’s refusal to make a distinction between politics and transcendence as equally valid methods of achieving catharsis. Here there were random bursts of noise, emphatically distorted guitars, and a conscious blend of musical beauty with the aesthetically discomfiting. Or, you know, punk rock.

“Cherylee,” which closed the album, unfolds in two distinct movements: one, in which the vocals are distorted and compressed, distinctly placed out of the center of the mix and positioned in a way that’s…off. Then, after a meticulously played piano takes the center, Anderson begins singing a set of lyrics that feel simultaneously anthemic, cathartic, contradictory, and disorienting:

“You’ve got to look it in the eyes and say that I don’t believe;

You’ve got to hold it underwater so you see where it bleeds;

You’ve got to stare into the mirror until you name this disease;

You’ve got to know

 

You’ve got to write down all your symptoms even though it’s obscene;

You’ve got to stay there underwater until you get yourself clean;

You’ve got to keep on going until you feel finally free;

You’ve got to know

 

You’ve got to look it in the eyes and say that I don’t believe;

You’ve got to look up out the water ’til you can’t hardly see;

You’ve got to keep on going, you’ll forget about me;

You’ve got to know.”

 

There’s a subtle double-tracking to Anderson’s vocals here: the one that occupies most of the mix is full and melodic, the sort of voice you want to hear leading a protest song; the sort of voice that inspires. And in the background is the same voice but distorted, emerging as through some unbelievable ordeal or set of conditions. So too does the volume at which she sings slowly increase; so too does the sound of a guitar begin to appear as a counterpoint to the piano. It’s exhausting and powerful, a study in contrasts that reads like a paradox on paper but works brilliantly transmitted through speakers.

***

 

Since the end of Gowns, Anderson has been making music under the name EMA. “California,” from her 2011 debut Past Life Martyred Saints, is essentially an essay about circa-now American politics in the form of a four-and-a-half-minute pop song. Its opening lines are, “Fuck California, you made me boring,” before shifting into a reverie for midwestern friends left behind. And at the end, she interpolates a section of “Camptown Races” before evoking a procession of figures holy and familial carrying guns: first Joseph and Mary, then Grandpa and Grandma. “I used to carry the gun,” she sings, with more than a little regret in her voice. You can look at it as an exercise in catharsis or you can look at it as an exploration of legacies of privilege and violence, or you can look at it as some combination of the two.

(It’s probably worth saying right now, given that I’ve run the risk of making EMA’s music sound like a lecture on how to write harrowing songs about American legacies of privilege, class, and violence, that this is also incredibly powerful rock music on its own merits. Anderson has covered Danzig and has borrowed lyrics from The Doors, and whether you want to posit that as a Patti Smith-covering-“Gloria”-style instance of undermining the rock patriarchy or simply of throwing her hat in the ring to show that, hey, she can shred with the best of them–this is music that hits on a visceral level.)

2014 brought with it the second EMA album, The Future’s Void. Here, Anderson wrote about surveillance and added a tinge of science fiction to her work, including nods to the novel Neuromancer and cosmic horror. Around the same time, she talked about the future with William Gibson for Paper. If Past Life Martyred Saints was a more guitar-driven album, The Future’s Void is a more percussive one; it’s somewhat less of a rock record than its predecessor, though the use of noise elements and the lyrical sensibility remain connected. For the songs on this year’s Exile in the Outer Ring, there’s more of a sense of a rock dynamic back again: voice and guitars in the forefront, drums accentuating them and propelling them forward.

Thus, some of the press releases I’ve been getting about Exile in the Outer Ring, have posited it as a back-to-basics album, a return to some of the sonics and concerns of Gowns. Which, on paper, is accurate enough: “Receive Love” sounds like a great lost circa-’97 Pacific Northwest indie rock song, while the tersely-played guitar in “I Wanna Destroy” summons a furious energy. But to argue that this album is Red State II–or, if you prefer, the Harvest Moon to Red State’s Harvest–doesn’t quite work. In 2007 we were in the waning days of George W. Bush’s presidency and in 2017 we’re in the early days of Donald Trump’s. Some of the faces are the same, and many are different. The basic outline looks the same–“conservative Republican president with unsettling veep lurking in the background”–but the devil, as they say, is in the details.

In a recent interview with Hazel Cillis for The Muse, Anderson talked about the process of making the album and the reaction she’s gotten for some of its more provocative titles, including “Aryan Nation” and “33 Nihilistic and Female.” She discusses the fact that the album was written before last year’s election, but wonders if she “was tapping into maybe subconsciously was this kind of alienation from what these kind of city-centers were becoming.” The title, she explains, is a reference to areas outside of the moneyed districts of cities, whether economically-affected neighborhoods or suburbs fallen on hard times.

That’s one of the ways this album feels connected to the zeitgeist. Another comes from the lyrics, there’s a particularly zeitgeist-y lyrical sensibility at work here. “Tell me stories of famous men/ I can’t see myself in them,” Anderson sings at one point–a line that could be interpreted as a feminist rallying cry or a statement of alienation and desperation, depending on how you choose to read the narrator. That, too, is one reason this album may resonate powerfully: much as Anderson’s songs have a raucous political energy, they’re also open to multiple interpretations; you can come at them from different angles and find an equally satisfying message.

Exile in the Outer Ring closes with “Where the Darkness Begins,” a haunting monologue backed by an anxious horror-soundtrack drone. It feels like a sequel to Red State’s centerpiece “White Like Heaven,” a slow-building song that approached the visionary, as Anderson recounted lyrics that described an out of body experience. That’s also critical: Anderson has never lost sight of another dimension to music: it can inspire or enlighten; it can soundtrack a protest movement or inspire quiet personal change. EMA’s music can do all of these things, but it also leaves plenty of room for transcendence. When you’re pondering the social dynamics of the world around you, it’s easy to forget that the ecstatic also exists. These songs are a reminder that it, like change, like redemption, is something within reach.


Tobias Carroll frequently writes about books, music, and pop culture for a variety of publications. He is the author of the books Reel and Transitory, and can be found on Twitter as @TobiasCarroll.

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