EMA began writing her dark but ultimately hopeful new album, Exile In The Outer Ring, before the presidential election, but it can’t help but feel like a reaction to the Trump era. It even has a song called “Aryan Nation”—“Go back home to below your station / Like a refugee from the Aryan nation”—but Exile In The Outer Ring’s timeliness remains coincidental. Erika M. Anderson was digging into suburban alienation long before it mobilized at the voting booth.
Inspired by what she calls “the outer ring”—“the suburban world of people… pushed out of city centers by stagnating wages and rising expense, forced up against rural communities swallowed by sprawl,” per the album’s press materials—EMA drew upon her childhood in South Dakota and running with what she calls “scumbag boys.” Their perspective drives Exile In The Outer Ring, from the powerlessness of “Down And Out,” to the cycle of violence and poverty in “Aryan Nation,” to the utter hopelessness of “Always Bleeds,” in which EMA almost coos, “We were born defeated / I do not think that this will ever end.”
Yet that song, buoyed by a skittering guitar line, bright synthesizer, and driving percussion, almost sounds triumphant. Even when Exile In The Outer Ring feels relentlessly bleak—particularly the six-and-a-half-minute “Breathalyzer,” whose washes of distortion and atonal noise are almost suffocating—light still peeks through. In “Receive Love,” a reflexive distrust that has calcified into a barrier against love starts to crack. Singing in a husky whisper over a quietly picked guitar and floating synthesizers, EMA’s lover asks, “Angel, why you always gotta be so tough?”
Still, dread surrounds Exile In The Outer Ring like a thick fog. As much as EMA empathizes with “the kids from the void,” her excellent album offers little comfort besides the gentle urging of “Hey, don’t go away” (“Down And Out”). Maybe that’s all anyone can hope for these days. Eventually, when the fog lifts, Exile In The Outer Ring could stand as one of the artistic triumphs of this dark time.
Purchasing Exile In The Outer Ring via Amazon helps support The A.V. Club.