EMA is Erika M. Anderson. Her previous band, Gowns, inspired devotion in part because of its volatility. It was a beautiful thing, too sensitive for this world, too dysfunctional, and destined for a bad end. Listening back to the songs on Gowns’ only full-length, Red State, after hearing Anderson’s first solo record, Past Life Martyred Saints, is to hear songs that have retained their emotional punch, but sound slight and fragile. Not compromised, but shy or maybe the tiniest bit scared of whatever interpersonal psychic vortex ran between Anderson and Ezra Buchla. Indeed, they were sharing the kinds of things that normally involve lowering you voice. Saints sounds bigger and feels more major than Gowns’ work, even though it’s clearly cut from the same cloth. Lil B regularly claims he saved rap, with varying amounts of tongue in cheek, I’m sure; Past Life Martyred Saints sounds as if it’s trying to save rock, but without any winks or nods.
Past Life Martyred Saints is rock music in the sense that it is basic and powerful, like Tonight’s the Night — even though it’s thrilling to hear Anderson try to transcend the field, the real action is in how she connects. As a performer, she’s much more of a channeller than a songwriter. As a critic, I’m more likely to think of rock in terms of the bête noire of rockism, not as an actual living genre that can still live up to its ridiculous promises. But, with the boundaries between genres dissolving at roughly the same pace as the one that separates the underground from the mainstream, the desire to call bullshit on hoary aesthetics isn’t exclusive to writers. Anderson’s a potent presence, and she makes these foggy promises — they’re unique to every listener, but I’ll associate them with listening to Double Nickels on the Dime and drinking Capri Sun when I was 14 — feel tangible, not limiting or rooted in the past.
Maybe reaching the heights of “California” — the album’s breakout single, and a song that always conjures goosebumps for me — is reserved for fearless rockers like Anderson. But Saints is successful because in it, you can hear Anderson trying to make music that is a source of solace and release for her fans without being dishonest about the darkness it’s facing down. Building roads between people is hard work and it doesn’t have the lightness of genius. Xiu Xiu is maybe the closest point of reference for what Anderson does, but Jamie Stewart doesn’t make albums as consistent as this one. Maybe that’s because he’s not as magnetic as EMA, who likes to karaoke Young MC and choreographs her own videos and shreds on Robert Johnson jams. Her sense of fun comes across as much as the real talk. This may be limited to people whose lives were changed by discovering punk, but she makes music that, while utterly her own, taps into the ardor of Danzig and Sonic Youth and Throbbing Gristle. The results range from the bracing, Indian Jewelry-style blast of “Milkman,” which Anderson howls through like some incredible rock beast, to the aching slog of “Marked.” In both, EMA’s doing it alone.
I intend that as hyperbole and not hype. Some songs are less interesting than others, and nothing matches “California,” but the point I’m trying to make has nothing to do with formal perfection. Saints would be less interesting if it didn’t cover so much ground and have mixed results along the way. The brilliance of the album is in how it’s a conduit for so much feeling, failure and grime (“These drugs they are making me so sad,” Anderson deflatedly sings on “Marked”). Saints is a long way from the perfect diorama of some garage-rock record. Instead, it touches raw nerves that create discomfort as well as joy. The idea is, here’s an experience that can make us a little more aware of, and capable of dealing with, life’s incoherence. Thank you, Based Goddess.