Album Of The Week: EMA Exile In The Outer Ring
Erika M. Anderson has now spent a solid decade getting us ready for this historical moment. Back in 2007, Gowns, the noisy drone-folk trio that Anderson once led, released an album called Red State. It’s an apocalyptic vision of Anderson’s native South Dakota. She sang about it as a place where despair runs rampant, where kids flirt with death and oblivion by wolfing down whatever pills they can find, where bad faith and conspiracy theories run rampant. She sang about chasing a state of mind where, if you’re there, the light filtering through dirty windows into your basement bedroom is beautiful. Red State warned us of a rural America devoid of hope, chasing its own dragons, doomed to terrible things. On “White Like Heaven,” she sang of an epiphany: sitting high in a car, watching a man mowing a lawn, knowing the man’s wife would have a baby that would grow up on TV and macaroni and cheese, that the baby would go on to become a gas-huffing rapist, that nobody could stop that dark future. We’re in that dark future now. Anderson is still singing about it.
The “outer ring” of Exile In The Outer Ring, Anderson’s third solo album, is the ring of low-cost housing that now circles every urban center on the furthest-out edges. Anderson has noticed that American cities have changed the same way European cities did decades ago. All the money is at the center of the city, so cities, for the most part, aren’t the urban wastelands that our parents once imagined. Instead, the broken, dead parts are out on the margins, out of sight. Exile In The Outer Ring is an album about cheap industrial townhouses and strip-mall vape shops and freon-smelling retail spaces that have stood vacant ever since Circuit City shut down: “Down by the malls / Big Lots and the big boxes / Got lots of space / It match my blank thought process.” Anderson, who grew up in Sioux Falls, looks at the human alienation that exists in spaces like that, and she sees something similar to the prairie where she grew up. She sees the denizens of these places as haunted people, people left behind: “And I see them standing outside of the casino / And in their eyes are things that you and I could never know.”
Maybe I’m making it look like Anderson is aestheticizing these people, turning them into walking tropes in her opera about late capitalism. But that’s not what she’s doing — or, in any case, it’s not all she’s doing. Anderson has always written with the fire of empathy in her, and she sees the plight of these areas as a genuine American tragedy. That story, the story of these dirt-poor exurbs and the ennui that they create, is also a story about wealth concentration, about the way rich people have hoarded America’s money to the point where people without money don’t get the luxury of feeling like people: “Say you need a sense of purpose when you’re on the floor / Think maybe you deserve it if you’re poor.” On Outer Ring, she sings over artfully sculpted sheets of feedback, and she multi-tracks her own part like she’s a human choir singing an aria at a funeral. It’s an album made in mourning, an album that internalizes the dead-end feeling at its center: “We got no meaning / No gleaming, no proof / We’re arbitrary / We’re temporary / We are the kids from the void.”
Anderson has one of our great rock voices, a sweet-but-ragged howl-coo that can turn a song from dirge to anthem in the space of the time it takes her to switch keys. (The last two-or-so minutes of “Red Sun,” the last song on her 2011 solo debut Past Life Martyred Saints, make for one of my favorite moments of music I’ve heard this century, and I love it almost entirely because of the things that Anderson does with her voice on it.) She tried to steer into that voice’s power on her last album, 2014’s The Future’s Void, flirting almost as much with grunge-pop sonics as she did with cyberpunk visions of technology unbounded. But Exile On The Outer Ring, like Red State and Past Life Martyred Saints before it, almost studiously avoids big rock gestures. Instead, Anderson and producer Jacob Portrait (of Unknown Mortal Orchestra) build songs out of effects-pedal hum and junkyard folk. But they’re not avoiding catharsis. Anderson’s voice won’t let them. For all the ominous buzzing of the album’s production, and for all the soul-sucking severity of its subject matter, Outer Ring is a gorgeous album. “I Wanna Destroy” is a mantra and a lullaby. “33 Nihilistic And Female” hits like something PJ Harvey and Ministry might’ve made together in 1995. “Always Bleed” is like a spartan Joy Division hymn that actually knows how sad it is. This is heavy music, but it’s beautiful, too, and you can get lost in it.
Erika M. Anderson wrote Exile In The Outer Ring before the outer rings of America rose up and installed an avatar of their alienation in the White House. She released the single “Aryan Nation” — “Throwing down with the least provocation / With that vintage steel from your dad’s generation” — before actual Nazis marched through the streets of the small Southern college town where I live, waving swastika flags and sieg-heiling and mugging for cable-news cameras. A week and a half ago, when the white supremacists were in my town, I was driving my family back from our North Carolina vacation, hoping I could get us there in time to at least show my face at a protest before the toxic bullshit ended. As we drove along those heavily wooded highways, my wife read me updates from her phone: They’re in the park now. There are militia guys with assault rifles. They’re beating people with sticks. They’re chanting “Jews will not replace us.” There’s clouds of pepper spray floating in the air. The riot cops are coming in. Someone just drove a car into a crowd of people. People might be dead. I’ll never forget the feeling of being in that car, floating along those roadways, feeling like the entire fabric of reality, at least in my town, was collapsing in on itself. Exile In The Outer Ring is an album about that feeling, or about a feeling like it. It will haunt you.
Other albums out this week:
• The War On Drugs’ synthy, textured drunk-on-memory classic rocker A Deeper Understanding.
• Brand New’s long-awaited comeback Science Fiction.
• Queens Of The Stone Age’s hard-strutting return Villains.
• Action Bronson’s stoned, rambling Blue Chips 7000.
• Oh Sees’ percussive psych ripper Orc.
• Turnover’s expansive dream-rocker Good Nature.
• Susanne Sundfør’s synthetic, powerful Music For People In Trouble.
• Liars’ transition-to-solo-project LP TFCF (Themes From Crying Fountain).
• King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s deeply weird Sketches Of Brunswick East.
• A$AP Mob’s full-crew-strength Cozy Tapes, Vol. 2: Too Cozy.
• Corin Tucker/Peter Buck supergroup Filthy Friends’ self-titled debut.
• Iron & Wine’s bucolic folker Beast Epic.
• Gifted, anarchic rap collective Brockhampton’s as-yet-unheard Saturation II.
• A Giant Dog’s tense, gripping punker Toy.
• Together PANGEA’s raw garage rocker Bulls And Roosters.
• Gordi’s spectral zone-out Reservoir.
• The Fresh & Onlys’ psych-rock drifter Wolf Lie Down.
• Widowspeak’s fractured indie-folker Expect The Best.
• Bodies Of Water’s epic, chugging Spear In The City.
• Hype Williams’ scuzzy comeback Rainbow Edition.
• Ultimate Painting member Jack Cooper’s solo album Sandgrown.
• SOAR’s crisp, catchy debut dark / gold.
• Blank Range’s rootsy debut Marooned With The Treasure.
• Gogol Bordello’s gypsy punker Seekers And Finders.
• Club Night’s Hell Ya EP.
• Lone’s Ambivert Tools Volume Two EP.