Erika M. Anderson goes to a dark place on her debut as EMA. The former Gowns And Amps For Christ member spins her previous projects’ art-damaged electric folk into a spare vehicle for the blues. It’s no coincidence that her first single, “The Grey Ship”—a Viking-inspired dirge about being carried away in a funeral boat—was backed by a 16-minute Robert Johnson cover. Buzz-building move that it was, her extended take on “Kind Hearted Woman Blues” readied listeners for the impossibly bleak, physically taxing, depths-plumbing experience that is Past Life Martyred Saints.
These nine songs find her emotions laid bare—typically on a bed of seething guitar, though the a cappella Appalachian mourner “Coda” is no less devastating when Anderson pines, “These drugs are making me so sad, and I can’t stop taking them in.” On “California,” she channels Patti Smith by spitting vitriolic spoken word over surging chords, while “Marked” finds her adopting a hoarse growl to sing of abuse—“I wish that every time he touched me left a mark”—through scratchy strum, church organ, and dooming atmosphere. Still, it doesn’t get any blacker than “Butterfly Knife,” a purgatorial ode to suicide wherein Anderson’s multi-tracked voice becomes a chorus of woeful angels and tortured souls. It’s hard not to hope EMA finds her slice of heaven soon, but the closer she drifts to hell, the better her music.