EMA – Exile In the Outer Ring

– this review was first published here at This Is Not a Drill –

I.

The other day I was listening to EMA while writing about Lana Del Rey. It was an interesting juxtaposition, to say the least. EMA’s music is gritty, bleak, full of industrial noise and military drones, unpleasant, while the darkest description one could give of Lana Del Rey is that she seems uneasily content with an empty life. But then you start thinking about it, and the two start overlapping, and the question arises: are they really all that different? After all, both Lana Del Rey and Erika M. Anderson offer, in their own way, a ‘vision’ of America – a vision, furthermore, that isn’t entirely positive. Both, too, seem fond of the outcasts – the inhabitants of the Outer Ring, in Anderson’s terminology, of which more later, biker crews and The Other Woman’s and failed film stars in Lana’s world – and a certain strand of nihilism runs through the songwriting of each. On ‘I Wanna Destroy’, EMA sings “We’re arbitrary, we’re temporary, we are the kids from the void” and while Lana would never put it that crudely, the essence is the same. To put it in terms of the title off another track on Exile In The Outer Ring, both are ’33 Nihilistic and Female’.

II.

It’s not the people we hear. It’s not the noise of the politicians lying on their television sets either. It’s not even the sounds on the street, the cries of pain or anger, the sound of fear, the silence of depression. It’s the city itself. We hear the rumbling concrete, falling apart ever so slowly. We hear the tension of the steel of the bridges, straining under the cars that pass over them every day. We hear the burning of the scalding hot water through the pipes servicing residential blocks, and we hear the airless gas pumping through the ground.

It’s as if we’re inside the Los Angeles of Blade Runner. It’s as if we’re inside Metropolis’ monstrous constructs. Both references are way off though. Add dynamite and fire and perhaps you’ll get there.

III.

It’s funny. EMA’s records sound so uncompromising, so harsh, so full of rage and skepticism and nihilism and self-destruction that you must absolutely brace yourself before pressing play. But in an interview with The Quietus explaining Exile In The Outer Ring, Anderson strikes an especially conciliatory tone. “All the songs on this record were written before the US Presidential election. I think that one of the things I was tapping into, subconsciously, was a resentment of the ‘liberal coastal elite’ in America. […] I have a bit of that resentment.” That reconciliation is what the Outer Ring signifies: the outer ring of a city “where the people who are being forced out of the cities, due to being economically disadvantaged, meet with the people who having to leave the countryside in order to get jobs.” And it’s not the horror city from the songs. The Outer Ring is “the place where the weird shit goes down”, a vibrant meeting place of cultures. It is where, perhaps, discourse is a little bit less polarised, understanding a bit more mutual; a new birthplace of tolerance. So when Anderson asks “What are we hoping for?” on ‘Down and Out’ (despite the title the catchiest track on the record), it’s a genuine question.

How to reconcile the empathy of/with the outer ring and the intolerant sounds of Exile? The clue, I think, is to separate personal from political. This record is not about Trump – it was written before Trump, and it’ll be frightening years after Trump, and perhaps Trump isn’t even that frightening, ridiculous as he is (though I realise that is a privileged perspective). This is primarily a record about, by Anderson. The outer ring may be where we can find new hope, but it is also where she found a dark basement, “the darkest place I could find”. The world we live in simply isn’t beautiful.

IV.

That brings us to the Biggest Question: what happens in the end? “See, God,” Anderson addresses on ‘I Wanna Destroy’, “no gleaming, no proof”. And over the course of Exile In the Outer Ring, He pops up a couple of times: “I felt sure I would be judged / This is between me, God and Satan” she speaks on ‘7 Years’, and “Now only God can judge me” she sings on ‘Blood and Chalk’. Well, what the fuck is he doing here? Is this the logical consequence of nihilism, a (desperate) search for meaning? Or is this an allusion to the religion of the red states she grew up in? Or else is this a personal reckoning, god merely existing in Anderson’s (and in our) own heads? It’s these incongruous references that puzzle me, because the hope that they offer is of a twisted kind. I’m not sure how to place them; to be honest, they frighten me. It’s an absurd joke indeed, that what frightens me most in EMA’s songs is the presence of some benevolent higher power. But that’s just the way it is.

-- Caspar Jacobs, August 29, 2017