Explores the the violent, hateful fury that’s lurked in long-ignored American locales.
The songs that comprise Exile in the Outer Ring, Erika M. Anderson’s third studio album under the moniker EMA, often feel as though they’re reaching for a transcendence from the world Anderson has dubbed “the Outer Ring.” This world, as she’s described it, is “the estuary where the people who are being forced out of the cities, due to being economically disadvantaged, meet with the people who [have had] to leave the countryside in order to get jobs.” It’s a forgotten suburbia, a place of cracked asphalt, abandoned Circuit Cities, pawn shops and bail bondsmen, a place connected by highways that feel ancient, “Like skeletons of dinosaurs/ Oil from bones.” It’s a place where kids get high in the back of Toyota Camrys to no particular end; it’s a place of few disasters but even fewer escapes. It’s the bombed-out carapace of an American dream one generation removed populated by people that dream never sought to accommodate. It’s “where the weird shit happens.”
But this exile doesn’t just refer to some nameless horde that winds up trapped in this ring. On the album’s final track, “Where the Darkness Began,” Anderson tells us in an anesthetized, spoken-word drawl that “There was once a light/ On a place that I wanted to keep dark/ And so I ran away/ To the darkest place that I could find/ A basement in the Outer Ring.” The opposite bookend, opener “7 Years,” feels like the record’s chronological end. It’s a benediction of sorts, an articulation and washing away of the blurry trauma that first sent her into self-imposed exile. Backtracked guitars bleed into a hazy, exhausted ballad that seems to imply a catharsis Anderson has denied us—suitable for an album obsessed with documenting petty incidents of self-obliteration writ large, the kind that drive Anderson and her characters along its cruel Mobius strip without clear beginnings or ends.
Anderson herself grew up in a similar kind of suburban poverty to that which she describes on Exile. As a young punk in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, she submerged herself in a scene full of angry boys and men making music at the crossroads of sludge, metal, noise and industrial. It was this musical upbringing along with years of aesthetic woodshedding that prepped Anderson to make this album her most coherent and sonically diverse to date. While these songs are astonishingly simple at their core—short melodic fragments often strung together by a bashful acoustic guitar—Anderson gives these kernels urgency and depth by casting them into a meticulously crafted squall. But it isn’t just the music of her youth that informs this record.
Those angry young men Anderson grew up with left the residue of a distinctly male rage that she’s tried to both claim and interrogate. “In my home town, any art or culture or anything interesting that was going on was strictly a boy’s club,” she said in conversation with the Quietus. “[They were] gnarly scumbags, but they were the people I had to learn from.” Years removed, Anderson is keenly aware of how taxing and exclusionary that rage can be all while acknowledging the impact it’s had on her; as she sings on the doleful, bluesy “Receive Love,” “I remember sitting in the room with them/ Hearing what they said when talk about women/ Joking about killing, dismemberment/ And I said nothing ‘cause I believed them to be true.”
Of course that chaotic, gendered alienation can also couple with an American tradition of violence and white supremacy as on “Aryan Nation,” where Anderson gives an unnerving portrait of boys, “Throwing down with the least provocation/ With that vintage steel/ From your dad’s generation.” The album was written before the 2016 election but its preoccupations with the violent, hateful fury that’s lurked in these long-ignored American locales feel eerily relevant in an era scarred by Trump, Dylann Roof and the events of Charlottesville, Virginia.
Anderson also shows great empathy for the people in her Outer Ring, as on her blurry, desperate character sketches of young women oscillating between abject despair and manic, drugged-out highs. “33 Nihilistic and Female,” “I Wanna Destroy,” and “Down and Out” all offer accounts of tactile reactions to life in this world, and “Fire Water Air LSD,” the record’s mystic epicenter, is perhaps Anderson’s clearest distillation of this vision. Massive drums and bleary, throbbing synths open this industrial dance track before Anderson breaks into her elemental invocation: “Fire, water, air, and LSD/ Feeling motion/ See it in the trees.” At the song’s core is an oracular barn-burner of a monologue in which she manages to condense the manifold dilemmas faced by herself and her characters into a set of surreal declarations: “Reaching for the sun you will sustain some damage/ A god will break your jaw/ But I can still speak through broke teeth.”
For each high there’s an equally murky low. Take “Breathalyzer,” the album’s crusty, shimmering black pearl. The song is anchored by a slow-burning, inscetoid drone that builds in mass and dissonance as Anderson uses a monk-like chant to set the scene of a more hollow drug-trip (“the dark parking lot of apartments…/ Down by the malls/ Big lots and the big boxes…/It match my blank thought process”). As the high begins to kick in, curlicued swirls of distortion collide with scattered, pounding drums and disembodied voices that whisper “I can make you feel small.” “I feel so hot/ I feel so heavy,” she sings, “I’m in the back seat of the Camry.” The buzzing becomes unbearable, Anderson’s lacerated howl pushing toward some kind of climax—but all we get is a few thin chords simulating an enervated comedown, another denial.
It’s this very denial of transcendental escape that epitomizes Exile’s sublime, ambient anxiety. Just when it feels as though the measured clamor might break into some catharsis, some epiphany, we open our eyes, step out of the backseat of the Camry, find our feet planted squarely on the cracked concrete outside some decrepit Rite Aid and continue wandering along the margins of the Outer Ring.