Aside from being an amalgam of Erika Michelle Anderson’s initials, the recording moniker EMA sounds like it could be an illicit substance. You could imagine the name denoting something that is best taken in the dark when you want to concentrate all your energy on another person. Through Exile in the Outer Ring, EMA creates a jagged, broken mirror world where communication is garbled by literal debris and by invocations of higher powers, like Jesus and the Devil. Sonically, this album is defined by debris. There’s scarcely a moment where the instruments or Anderson’s own voice don’t have any manipulation on them. And even in those few moments where we are treated to her rich singing voice unadorned, there’s a natural rattle that creeps into its edges, always reminding the listener of the human whose throat these vibrations are coming from.
Exile’s intensity stems from the wrenching beauty that Anderson gets from her singing and the melodic and structural familiarity of her songs as they’re run through sheets of noise. Like fellow contemporary artists Angel Olsen or Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast, Anderson employs sturdy pop and rock songwriting, infuses it with her unique voice. The opening track “7 Years” could have easily been a stripped down song by the Cocteau Twins or some other 4AD act from decades ago. But the roughness that accompanies Anderson’s vocal layering is almost unnerving in how it underscores the quiet despair of her lyrics.
Elsewhere, like on “Breathalyzer” and “I Wanna Destroy”, Anderson channels both Suicide and The Downward Spiral-era Nine Inch Nails with industrial edginess. Both of these songs breathe fire, but “I Wanna Destroy”’s focus is nothing less than human inconsequence as Anderson intones “We’re arbitrary / We’re temporary.”
Anderson’s influences are clear for any deep listener of indie rock canon, but she’s able to make these exciting composites that bridge the influences together beautifully. Aside from its self-aware tongue-in-cheek bad kid title, “Fire Water Air LSD” shoes its pedigree by marrying an industrial strut to an urgent, sexualized vocal, resulting in a song that is scarily close to being a modern iteration of Isn’t Anything? era MBV. On “Aryan Nation”, Anderson makes the synths chugs as she gives a post-riot grrrl vocal performance separated by amber-toned, but stinging guitar solos.
Exile in the Outer is an assured record that manages to straddle its disparate inspirations into a conceptually coherent whole, if not entirely an artistic one. This is an album whose very nature affords for stylistic discordance, but sometimes the songs themselves falter. The album starts to repeat its tricks as it progresses through its final third, leaving the listener on a muted note. Still, there’s a special singularity in Anderson’s voice — a wholly distinct instrument that can wrap itself into virtually any type of song with a croon or a growl.