In the pantheon of songs inspired by the Golden State, EMA’s “California” is one of the most bitter. Erika M. Anderson wrote it after finding herself unimpressed by her new surroundings upon moving to the West Coast from her South Dakota hometown. It’s a song born out of deep dissatisfaction, with both society for selling California as some haven for creativity and individuality and with herself for not being able to adapt as easily as she thought she might. “Fuck California, you made me boring,” Anderson seethes in its iconic opening line. “I bled all my blood out, but these red pants, they don’t show that.”
Anderson’s lyrics are poetic and precise. On “California,” she alludes to bloody fights on Christmas morning and psychiatric holds; she memorializes the circumstances in which she grew up and those she grew up with who she left behind. “I’m sorry, Steven and Andrew, that I ever left you,” she sings. “Never seen the ocean, never been on a plane/ Schizophrenia rules the brain, aliens coming to take you away.” In the next line, she sanctifies these people as “past life martyred saints,” the name of her revelatory debut solo album.
All of these words spill out in a feverish, unceasing glower — the backdrop is stark and roiling and her words cut to the bone. By the time Past Life Martyred Saints was released 10 years ago today, Anderson was no stranger to this sort of gutting self-mythologizing. She was a few years removed from her previous band Gowns, which only released one full-length album, 2007’s Red State, a visceral precursor to the music that Anderson would make on her own. Anderson puts on an intimidating front, informed by the grizzled attitude she must have had to develop in reaction to being one of the only girls performing in the Sioux Falls hardcore scene when she was a teenager. Gowns didn’t make hardcore music, though they did have that same kind of intensity. They made scrawling, vivid, wounded experimental noise, the same sounds that she would continue to explore throughout her solo career as EMA.
Anderson’s songs are portraits of what it is like to grow up in the Midwest and feel both isolated and full of life, and in some cases far too much of the latter. She sings about addiction and self-harm and violent outbursts in a deeply affecting way. Her songs stare down an emptiness in the fabric of American society but don’t make snap judgements. Past Life Martyred Saints, and her two subsequent albums as EMA — 2014’s The Future’s Void and 2017’s Exile In The Outer Ring — still feel ahead of their time in the empathetic but unflinching ways they chronicle society’s rot and decay. Past Life Martyred Saints in particular sounds like a red-hot battlefield, pockmarked with economic struggle and abuse and pockets of hope that can feel hard to hold onto.
“I get obsessed with the idea of the void because, in some ways, that’s what South Dakota felt like,” Anderson said in an interview a couple years after the release of her debut. “I used to think growing up there put me at a disadvantage because I didn’t have access to a lot of art, but I kept re-evaluating my relationship to it. Being totally free on those gravel roads with my friends and good music was the most awesome thing.”
Past Life Martyred Saints often feels like it’s being pulled in two directions at once: the first, the natural inclination to want to escape your hometown and run as far away as you possibly can; the second, which typically comes later on in life, the way you learn to begrudgingly respect the environment that you were raised in and how it shaped you, for better and for worse. Anderson maintains a delicate balance on her debut album, glorifying and interrogating the people from her hometown and herself, all fucked-up but perpetually trying. On opener “The Grey Ship,” she sings about her Nordic heritage and imagines meeting all of her ancestors in heaven. She finds commonalities between her great-grandmother, who also grew up on the empty plains, and herself: “I’ve got the same feeling inside of me: nothing and nothing and nothing and nothing.” On “California,” she conjures an emotional map that reflects that emptiness: “Give me the places, I’ll give you the names/ Wasted away alone on the plains/ What’s it like to be small town and gay?/ Fuck it, baby, I know you’ll never change.”
The most deeply sympathetic song on Past Life Martyred Saints is “Butterfly Knife,” which was inspired by the real-life events of a couple in Redlands, CA who were convicted of murdering their high school friend. Despite the geographical remove, she can understand the isolating circumstances that might lead one to commit such an act of violence. “You were a goth in high school/ You cut and fucked your arms up/ You always talked about it/ They thought you’d never do it,” she sings, pushing her voice to the bleeding edge. “I’ve been inside your bedroom/ I’ve got the same scars, you see.” Anderson can easily envision how two people could be drawn together into such a tragic partnership by the shared experience of self-harm and exile — it’s compassionate and vicious and it’s one of the most devastating songs on the album.
Anderson surrounds herself with ugly-beautiful sounds, scraping noise and lifting guitars; she delivers words like a fervent prophet. Past Life Martyred Saints operates at the extreme ends of sound — at time bruised and brutal, it’s also a landscape over which she can spin her surprisingly sweet melodies, a discordance that makes the album both repeatable and harrowing. In her scratchy and haunting sonic architecture, there’s echoes of Lou Reed and Patti Smith and Cat Power, the beaten-down Americana of Bright Eyes, a dreamy languidness that can sometimes recall Mazzy Star. It’s an album full of contrasting sounds and textures. “Someone once told me that, in film-making, when you want to show an act of great beauty and kindness, set it in a dirty, rainy back alley,” Anderson said. “And when you want to show a horrible battle, place it on a springtime country field.”
Her songs are disconcerting but oddly compulsive. They’re grimy and smartly composed; each little sound that she chooses builds to an impossible-to-resist whole. On “The Grey Ship,” she adds different layers over the course of seven minutes until the song breaks apart under its own weight. The blown-out cacophony of “Milkman” starts with a refrain of “I’m gasping” and ends with Anderson literally gasping and sputtering for air. Past Life Martyred Saints is scrappily intimate but also feels epic in scope; the songs are scathing and heart-wrenching, a series of scourings played with a hard-won ferocity. “They say love turns to rot, but I’m gonna give it all I got,” she sings on the vocals-only “Coda.” “I looked on the computer and it was just an emptiness that made me want to throw up on the spot.” Delivered in a sour sing-song lullaby, those lines are comforting and upsetting all at once.
And while those moments of emotional desolation are perhaps the most affecting on the album, the phrases Anderson tends to get stuck and repeat are typically the most hopeful. “Marked” has a whole lot of these, while simultaneously being one of the album’s most disquieting tracks. With a filmy, scuzzy smear, Anderson sings about psychological scars that might not leave a mark but are present and everlasting. She describes her body in horror-movie terms, a “bloodless, skinless plastic” that will absorb anything and everything thrown at it. She talks about all the ways she’s trying to numb the pain — “These drugs are making me so sad/ I can’t stop taking them” — but she ends on a note of resilience, an echoed insistence: “If there was a way to get it out, I want to get it out,” like she’s trying to exorcise a demon that only she can see.
Often when I think about Past Life Martyred Saints, I think of how distressing a listen it is — and it certainly can be — but, when I’m actually listening to it, there are so many moments of tender affection and empathy that outweigh that distress, which I think is the reason I’ve returned to it so many times over the years. There’s a whole lot of hope on the album, a persistence that’s infectious despite, or maybe because of, the scarred surface. Like on “Breakfast,” when Anderson repeats “I can’t stop, I won’t stop” and “you feel just like a breeze to me,” or the sweetly fatalistic end of “Anteroom”: “If this time through/ We don’t get it right/ I’ll come back to you/ In another life.” That’s the beauty of Past Life Martyred Saints — Anderson finds the silver lining in dark places and turns them into something worth being memorialized.