EMA: Past Life Martyred Saints

Erika M. Anderson from the sadly unheralded Gowns makes the kind of record 2011 needs and deserves, whether it knows it or not.


Past Life Martyred Saints

Label: Souterrain Transmissions
US Release Date: 2011-05-10
UK Release Date: 2011-05-09

One of my favourite Thomas Pynchon lines is from V: “Nothing was coming. Nothing was already here.” Like Erika M. Anderson’s (Amps for Christ, the secretly seminal Gowns) work, you can misread it as high school nihilism or depression or just empty academic posturing, but it’s a line that’s bloody and harrowing and triumphant, as much ecstatic and yearning as despairing. If you do want to talk about nihilism, don’t give it, as Borges said about existentialism, “the charm of the pathetic.” There is a moment after you come to the knowledge of (Borges again) “this declaration of our solitude, of our loss, of our primeval character", where you can decide to let it drive you either down or on. If you can’t get out of the first category, it can be hard to recognize the latter one.

We can talk about first world problems if you want, and drawing a distinction between most of the world and us privileged few is valuable, but it doesn’t undercut the things that make us want to cry or scream or laugh or just sit still and pay attention for a goddamned minute. Arguably things aren’t worse or more fucked up than they used to be, but the glory and terror of our age is that now it’s harder to hide from everything. We can talk about attention span or information overload or about curatorial taste, but that doesn’t make it any easier to know just how brutally most people get treated, or how to deal with the myriad and splintered forms of beauty we can suddenly access.

Past Life Martyred Saints is an album about “love in the form of tragedy, love so much, so real, so fucked it’s 5150", but on some level it’s also about repeating Bo Diddley’s “just 22 and I don’t mind dyin’” until the boastfulness goes away and you have to grapple with what you’re actually saying, and to what extent it’s true. It’s about “I wish that every time he touched left a mark”, and all the ways you might mean that. It’s about how people get damaged or changed by politics or bad love or good love or art or existing, and how inescapable that is.

And it’s maybe about none of those things, because while EMA is clearly a person who thinks her work through in a very cogent fashion, that doesn’t mean that her intent and point of view is necessarily transparent. As important as Past Life Martyred Saints feels in 2011, as humbling and elevating a capsule of what things are like now (and maybe always), it’s also a record. There is music on it. EMA’s work is simultaneously some of the most interesting I’ve heard in years, and jaggedly alive, the furthest thing from any sort of academic exercise.

“California” is seismic: the build and fall of those graceful, grinding arcs of piano and feedback merging with her chiding, despondent, witty, harrowing vocal (interpolating Diddley and “Camptown Races”). “Breakfast” is graceful and hushed and works over the line “Mama’s in the bedroom, don’t you stop” until it hurts, even if you can’t quite trace why. “Anteroom” and “Red Star” manage to do what Anderson’s ex-partner Ezra Buchla said about their work in Gowns: “we wanted to tell the bleakest and most affecting memories and fantasies of our childhood and adolescence, like our favorite grunge bands seemed to be doing when we heard them on the radio in high school.” “Milkman” sounds like Excepter and Xiu Xiu playing at the same time.

EMA’s music is terribly raw; Anderson lays everything on the line, just as she did in Gowns, and you can find the wailing laments of “Coda” or the complicated ache of “Marked” riveting or gauche. But just like the rest of the world, whichever way you jump, Past Life Martyred Saints is still there, to be dealt with or ignored. It’s your loss.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.