‘Exile In The Outer Ring’ is an album of intensity. Within minutes of the first listen, it’s immediately clear that, both in her lyrical themes and in the music that back them up, Erika Michelle Anderson (EMA to most) is making some weighty statements with her fourth solo album. With song titles such as ‘Aryan Nation’ and ’33 Nihilistic and Female’, there’s no getting away from the album’s hard hitting themes. Still, those left unclear on the album’s lyrical direction need look no further than her current Facebook banner and it’s declarations of “no sexism”, “no racism” and “no hate” (amongst others) for her current modus operandi.
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Indeed, the entirety of ‘Exile In The Outer Ring’ is weighed heavy with political and – perhaps more importantly – social observations of an acute nature. This isn’t an album of out-of-touch idealism; it’s a record where every word feels real, carefully poured over and, vitally, experienced. The gorgeously, melancholic sway of ‘Seven Years’ pairs its world-worn tale with a backing of lo-fi, crunchy guitar and stomping drums in a curious duality of electronic and acoustic that matches the often rusting, dilapidated landscapes of the album perfectly.
Although the lyrics are hefty enough that they can carry the album by themselves, to focus solely on Anderson’s lyricism is to do the music a disservice. The eerie, growing intensity of ‘Breathalyzer’ is a fantastically taut exercise in understatement, the writhing ache of Anderson’s vocal shuddering is underpinned by unflinchingly relentless drums and ominously buzzing synth. The raw heart and dark underbelly of the album’s themes only gain impact from the often abrasive harshness of the electronics that back them; a reinforcement of the discontentment that forms the album’s core.
Sonically, ‘Exile In The Outer Ring’ is dirty – even grime encrusted; production here seeks to create an atmosphere first and foremost and although the results are at times challenging, they are deeply effective and there’s a profound sense of disquiet throughout the album. Vocals are often heard through a subtle patina of distortion, drums burst through the mix in unexpected stabs and throbbing synths blare almost uncontrollably, sometimes to the point of threatening to drown out even the vocals. Although it’s atmosphere is one of chaos, never does ‘Exile In The Outer Ring’ feel like it has lost control; just as things seem to border on the atonal, Anderson brings it back in, tightening the reins as she does. It may result in a claustrophobic soundscape but it’s one that suits the songs down to a T and which requires a real creative skill to keep in order.
Even if the album’s overall impression is one of caustic attack, that’s an impression that belies Anderson’s sharp knack for immediate melodies and tightly written alt-pop. Unlike many of the album’s other moments, ‘Down And Out’ is visceral not for its heaviness but for its infectious melody and keen pop songcraft. Perhaps at times it would have been to the benefit of ‘Exile In The Outer Ring’ to make less use of the distortion-heavy synths that colourize the album so undeniably. Whilst the album doesn’t lack tonal variety, that same can’t always be said of it’s musicality and instrumentation and – given that less is often more – taking the blaring synth drones away more often would have only exaggerated their intensity upon their return.
Regardless, ‘Exile In The Outer Ring’ is a heavy-hitting, ambitious record that sees EMA articulate the frequently delicate topics she tackles, with both confidence and due vulnerability. It’s an album of dualities and that lends it a fascinating streak that the complex texturing only enhances.
The full track-listing for ‘Exile in the Outer Ring’ is as follows…
01. 7 Years
03. I Wanna Destroy
04. Blood and Chalk
05. Down and Out
06. Fire Water Air LSD
07. Aryan Nation
08. 33 Nihilistic and Female
09. Receive Love
10. Always Bleeds
11. Where The Darkness Began