This article originally appeared in The Skinny
Somewhere on the outskirts of the city, there lies what Erika M. Anderson calls the “outer ring”. It’s an area where people pushed out by the expense of the city centre and those looking to move from the country collide within a backdrop of beige shopping malls and nondescript streets; an oddly alienating and isolating space, which acts as a form of limbo.
It’s this very specific locale, often characterised by poverty and tension, which forms the focus of EMA’s latest album. On it, she weaves tales of being ignored by wider society simply for being poor, struggling to simply survive. Although opener 7 Years might seem sweepingly romantic, this is hardly a rose-tinted collection. Instead, Anderson presents her tales from the fringes in tones that are often as harsh as reality itself.
Breathalyzer’s very muddy, hazy mix makes it literally feel like drowning under a thick fog of ether, while Blood and Chalk blends sensitive vocals with crushing guitar riffs. Meanwhile, Fire Water Air LSD is an all-out foot-stomper, but it swims in crushing, industrial fuzz, Anderson’s yells crackling out from the void, and 33 Nihilistic and Female similarly coats a core pop melody in distortion and noise.
The music simply adds power to Anderson’s seething social commentary, which pierces knife-like throughout the album. Aryan Nation addresses a wide range of issues, including habitual drug abuse and a revolving door prison system, factors that keep a specific societal strata alienated and isolated. ‘Go back home to below your station,’ Anderson sings, speaking to both inescapable poverty and a wider perspective on certain segments of the American working class.
Though musically it’s one of the album’s most muted moments, Down and Out still manages to be scathing, questioning society’s eagerness to determine a person’s worth purely by their financial status. While it’s a piercing examination of social class though, it also manages to sound empathetic, and encourages the listener to similarly put themselves in the other’s shoes. Her question of ‘What are we hoping for?’ isn’t directly answered; instead, she leaves the audience to answer it themselves.
EMA has frequently dealt with tough, sometimes controversial topics. With Exile in the Outer Ring though, Anderson has all but perfected a very delicate balance. She presents subjects boldly and forcefully, but also with a great deal of sensitivity and thought-provoking tact. The questions she presents here will linger long after its final notes fade out.