91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Review: EMA, 'Exile In The Outer Ring'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

EMA, <em>Exile in the Outer Ring.</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
EMA, Exile in the Outer Ring.

Where will you live after the apocalypse? That question becomes more relevant once you realize the apocalypse is now, and ongoing, with society unmaking itself in convulsions and recovering in spurts. And the place where it's leaving Americans is what Erika M. Andersen calls the Outer Ring. It's that circular band of highways and avenues surrounding a city, where vape shops share strip-mall space with Halal butchers and Triple XXX Pleasure Zones, and immigrants stand at the bus stop next to Trump voters while their children get stoned together in the Kwik Mart parking lot. When gentrification implodes a city's historic core and outsourcing devastates employment in small towns — the everyday ways the world ends now, and will keep ending – the Outer Ring emerges as a real-life Fury Road where, as Anderson says, "the weird s*** is going down."

This is the setting for Anderson's latest album, Exile in the Outer Ring. She is one of current indie music's great world builders, versed in heavy metal's sense of myth, industrial music's lessons in texture, and feminist punk's mandate to tell stories still mostly hidden in the shadows. Her first album as EMA, Past Lives/Martyred Saints, transported listeners into a hothouse of abject sexuality and intimate abuse. Her second, The Future's Void, based in part on the protean cyberpunk of William Gibson, brought metal's fantasy fictions into the virtual reality era. Now, with Exile in the Outer Ring, EMA confronts the present, and specifically that marginal world where the rural red meets urban blue, which remains invisible in most public discourse.

EMA explores this powerful netherworld in songs that aren't linear narratives, but immersive scenes distorted by the perspectives of her unreliable narrators. Songs in the first person speak for edge-walkers, many of them women, negotiating minefields. The long, droning "Breathalyzer" recasts the mayhem of Sonic Youth's "Death Valley 69" from the point of view of a woman dodging the violence in her path; is the man who tells her "relax your throat" an assailant, a cop, or an accomplice? The lack of differentiation among those roles feels like an everyday reality in EMA's songs. The pubescent girl fighting through rage and shame in "Blood and Chalk" is the same one dancing to Guns N' Roses in "Fire Water Air LSD"; the simmering youths turning rightward in "Aryan Nation" are connected to the woman exploding out of her life's bonds in "33 Nihilistic and Female." Anderson speaks through all of these characters as a woman who's dwelled in the wasteland of the heartland herself; she's dedicated this album to that place, and where she still sees hope, despite the traps of drugs, poverty and silence that afflict so many who live there. She still believes in its purple energy.

Anderson builds her world in delicately modulated synthesizers and crashing fuzz guitars. Working with Jacob Portrait of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, she hones a sound that recalls touchstones like Nine Inch Nails and P.J. Harvey while nodding to peers like Zola Jesus and Torres. Like Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, she leans into the limits of her voice to access the underside of emotion. Her writing also recalls writers like Denis Johnson and John Darnielle, and like that novelist leader of The Mountain Goats, Anderson lets compassion lead her as she lends voice to the burnouts, bad kids and street survivors struggling to defy the odds and thrive. "What are we hoping for?" she repeats in the pretty, deeply melancholy "Down and Out." But then, she changes direction. "Hey," she says to her loved ones on the Outer Ring, "don't go away." This album makes a place for those souls, not yet lost.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.