EMA is better known as Erika M. Anderson, a native South Dakotan who has called California home for the last several years. Depending on how much you know about music and how many bands you can keep track of, you may have heard Anderson before, most notably with the band Gowns. Gowns broke up in early 2010, leaving behind five years of strong progress that included a couple albums and a whole bunch of mindblowing live shows. As with many bands where members are dating one another, if those relationships dissolve then so does the project. That’s not to say one breakup resulted in another in this particular case, but somewhere along the line the creative energy ran out. So Anderson has been working on her solo stuff for the last year or so, reviving a number of songs she wrote before and during Gowns’ tenure that never made it onto record, along with a handful of new ones as well. The final product is “Past Life Martyred Saints”, a sonically diverse, dark and angry 9-track album that’s markedly different from anything she’s done before.
The style is one we’ve heard before, and EMA is making her presence felt by unleashing “Past Life Martyred Saints” at the right time, just when the zeitgeist is craving for some 90s rock. Of course the sound is nowhere near as simple as that, and things get immensely complicated when you start taking the lyrics under consideration. You’ll notice something’s up straight from opening track “The Grey Ship”, which not only spans 7 minutes but goes through several evolutionary changes over the course of it. You’re misled at first into thinking it’s a wholly lo-fi effort, with Anderson’s voice and an acoustic guitar being the only elements present at the beginning, and sounding like they’ve both been recorded in an empty room with a shoddy microphone. As the track approaches the halfway point however, the vocals and guitar drop out as a fully plugged in and clear bass guitar takes over the main melody. A synth also works its way into the mix, and by the time Anderson’s vocals return, everything is crystal clear and in full fidelity. To its credit, “The Grey Ship” never stops tweaking itself until it’s officially over, incorporating everything from violins to loud electric guitars and overdubbed vocal harmonies. It’s an ambitious start to an ambitious record, even if nothing else that follows it ever quite displays the same potential.
Yet “California” enters and brings a whole new perspective to a record that was purposefully challenging to begin with. “Fuck California/You made me boring”, are the first words out of her mouth on a song that’s less about singing or structure or choruses and more just a sing-speak rant where you let out all your frustrations in an unfocused diatribe, come hell or high water. It’s an angry, sad, vengeful and homesick track with a dischordant backing instrumental that might as well be the soundtrack to the West Coast breaking off and sinking in a doomsday scenario. It’s about love “so fucked it’s 5150” and reciting lines from “Camptown Races” just to keep the random shit spewing and where a post-mortem examination leaves little clues as to how serious, sarcastic or true any of it is supposed to be. That’s exactly the point, because nothing in life is as cut and dry as we tend to see and hear through the glamourized versions of it on the big screen or through our stereo speakers. The messiness, the disorder, the sheer drama and how all of these things affect us and help or harm (mostly harm) our personal hopes and dreams is not only what “California” is about, but to an extent the entire record. You examine a song like “Marked”, in which a sparse and gritty melody backs lyrics like “I wish that every time he touched me he left a mark”, and likely the first thing that comes to mind is physical abuse. The hope that we might attain affection through being beaten may be disturbing, but the brutal honesty and masochistic tendencies are lurking in the darkest recesses of everyone’s subconscious and EMA is just prodding them. The same goes for “Butterfly Knife”, which appears to be a song about cutting and general bodily harm. At times “Past Life Martyred Saints” can feel like the auditory equivalent of a David Lynch, David Croneneberg or Lars Von Trier film, in which you have no real idea what the plotline or endgame might be, just that it’s confusing and disturbing and exciting all at the same time.
As dark and generally gruesome portions of this record might appear to be, the real lesson to be learned is that nothing is spelled out explicitly or with severe malice. Anderson has carefully thought these songs through and put them together with just enough vagaries to keep the listener guessing as to her true intentions. All great art is open to interpretation, and the multitude of viewpoints only furthers the idea that there’s much more depth and complexity to a piece than any of us can logically comprehend. So take “Past Life Martyred Saints” however you like, or don’t take it at all. The confrontational and ominous attitudes most certainly are not for everyone, but this record feels cut very much from the same cloth as classic 90s albums from artists like Hole (pre-crazy Courtney Love), Cat Power and early PJ Harvey or Liz Phair. The lyrics reveal much of the story, but the sounds that range from incendiary rock and roll (“Milkman”) to rusty folk (“Marked”) to grinding slowcore (“Red Star”) are all worth writing home about too. These varied textures help hold the mood in place while continuing to push on some boundaries as established right from the start. “Past Life Martyred Saints” may not be the most uplifting listen in the world, but it’s so well crafted and so reflective of the times we live in that there’s bound to be an audience for it. We’re all gluttons for punishment in our own different ways, and rarely has a record so full of melancholy and dismay felt so great to listen to.