This article first appeared at No Ripcord on Sept. 5, 2017.


Erika M. Anderson grew up in the outer ring, the suburbs and back roads around major cities across the United States. Between reurbanization, globalization and the Internet’s impact on industry, these neighborhoods are hollowed-out and in decline. The hopes of these communities became as dried up and faded as the American flag behind EMA on the cover of Exile In The Outer Ring. Her latest album explores not only her own experience growing up in these towns, but how those still living there react to their growing sense of abandonment.

“Everyone thinks you’re worthless/When you’re down and out,” EMA sings on Down and Out, over strings that slice like papercuts. A corrupted guitar squeals in the background as she follows up by repeating, “What are you hoping for?” It’s a song about dead ends. Dreams wash away in wishful thinking, leaving only scant, unfulfilling choices available in your life.

When there’s nothing to do and nowhere to go, people can turn to substances to take their mind off the paralysis. On Breathalyzer, EMA puts herself in the shoes of someone on a nighttime drug trip that goes off the rails. The music is a mix of hazy and distorted synths, as her vocals go from hoarse and desperate to freaked-out. But the song doesn’t blame, opting to paint a portrait rather than author a condemnation. Fire Water Air LSD covers similar territory, but with an industrial, Pretty Hate Machine soundscape.

For some, the frustration over a life of poverty and desolation, in the middle of the most powerful nation on the Earth, can boil over. The rage may come through in an anarchic desire to ruin, as EMA sings in I Wanna Destroy“We’re arbitrary/We’re temporary/We are the kids from the void,” she shouts, over rapidly-pounding beats and a taut guitar line. For others, the anger makes them vulnerable to radicalism. On Aryan Nation, EMA reaches out to those exploited by white supremacist groups, who take advantage of their desperation and push them towards hatred of minorities for their problems. After the domestic terrorism by white nationalists in Charlottesville, America needs a wake-up call like this more than ever.

EMA doesn’t keep herself at arm’s length from the despondency of the outer ring. 7 Years and Receive Love look at her struggles to get out of her own head and push herself to find a path forward. On the former, she sings, “For seven years I let this waste me / Seven years before I could face it / All that time of guilt and shame/ I couldn’t even say its name.” The music sounds like an anti-beach anthem along with a polluted shoreline. Background static fades in and out like waves, as she strums an echoed, burnt-out melody. On the latter, crooked, atonal notes interrupt a circular guitar pattern. She sings about hearing men make awful comments about women but not being able to react: “Hearing what they said, when talk about women/Joking about killing, dismemberment / And I said nothing.” That track contrasts with the “fuck you” attitude of 33 Nihilistic and Female, where she lays out who she is and challenges anyone to question it.

Outside a closing spoken-word interlude, EMA ends by pulling from her work with Gowns, on Always Bleeds. Over a vital, pointed guitar riff and a building wall of synths, she finds that even those who escape the outer ring still carry a piece of it with them. “Go back to Minnesota / And hide from children wounds that always bleed,” she sings, as the music crackles apart and floats into space.

On Exile In The Outer Ring, EMA filters her own experience growing up in the dark recesses of America, to give a perspective of where we are today. The rejection of the status quo through the 2016 Presidential Election grew out of this hopelessness in towns that seem to have no future. But through the album, EMA never judges or grandstands. She takes snapshots of life outside metropolises, inviting everyone to look closer at those left behind in the outer ring.