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.