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Exile In The Outer Ring Chad Parkhill , September 5th, 2017 17:35

EMA delivers a gimlet-eyed portrait of how the fringes of the United States became its spiritual centre

Late last year, during the interregnum between Donald Trump’s election and his accession to the White House, my partner and I travelled throughout the United States. As we drove between the liberal, artsy oases of the West Texas desert towards Santa Fe, New Mexico (another liberal, artsy oasis), we rode through a long stretch of oil country. The highways were terrifying in their quotidian bleakness: billboards on either sides advertised the importance of keeping Naltrexone in the house in case a loved one overdosed on opioids, or the services of personal-injury lawyers if you were involved in a crash with one of the oil trucks that domineer the highways here. Stretches of the highway were dedicated to victims of drink-driving. A ranch we passed featured a rifle slung underneath its entry archway and the motto “We don’t call 911”. Later, I looked up how the counties along this desolate stretch voted in the election: unsurprisingly, they all swung hard to Trump.

Erika M Anderson might have been born in South Dakota rather than New Mexico, but her music has long captured the bleakness of places like this - her earlier project Gowns recorded an album titled Red State, after all. On Exile In The Outer Ring, she moves from merely capturing this bleakness to making a broader point: that the world of American flags draped over basement windows, of getting fucked up in parking lots, of trucks fitted with court-mandated breathalysers, is now - thanks to the electoral quirks that delivered the presidency to Trump - the most salient part of the United States. The ‘outer ring’ of the title describes the physical spaces where this bleakness flourishes: the rings of strip malls and parking lots around liberal cities, where economic refugees from city gentrification and the hollowing-out of the conservative countryside meet and mix. It’s the kind of place where Trump voters rub shoulders with poor queers and immigrants, where people of all hues and persuasions get high and fuck and fight, where the victims of late capitalism try their utmost to get by.

Anderson walks a fine line on Exile In The Outer Ring: she doesn’t romanticise the material conditions or revolutionary potential of this space, nor does she pity the people who inhabit it. Instead, her vision is gimlet-eyed: “We got no meaning / no gleaming, no proof / we’re arbitrary / we’re temporary,” she sings on ‘I Wanna Destroy’. It’s impossible to listen to that song without thinking of the destructive id in the American mass psyche that would rather elect an unpredictable potential tyrant to the White House than do the right and expected thing and elect the establishment-approved, born-to-rule candidate. That same perspicacity turns out to be eerily prophetic in ‘Aryan Nation’, a song recorded and released prior to the recent neo-Nazi marches in Charlottesville, Virginia: she sings of groups of men “Throwing down with the least provocation / with that vintage steel / from your dad’s generation”. The song erases a simple us-vs-Nazis binary, however: she addresses the song’s listener, a “refugee from the Aryan nation” and lets you know “you’re still them within”.

Musically, this is Anderson at her most assured: she has synthesised her various musical interests and influences - noise music, metal, grunge, folk and country - into an entirely idiosyncratic musical lexicon. Drumbeats echo with cavernous reverb that recalls Ministry and Nine Inch Nails at their grimy 90s best; caterwauling sheets of guitar and synthesiser feedback wash over her vocals on ‘Fire Water Air LSD’ and ‘Breathalyser’. The coherence of Exile In The Outer Ring is a sharp departure from Anderson’s previous album, The Future’s Void, which occasionally felt as though it were bouncing between genre exercises, and places Exile as the spiritual successor to her solo debut, the stupendously forceful and moving Past Life Martyred Saints.

Exile In The Outer Ring isn’t here to titillate its listeners with poverty porn or to function as a paean to the indomitable spirit of the people who inhabit these spaces. Instead, as the closing, spoken-word track ‘Where the Darkness Began’ makes plain, it asks for introspection, for each of us to acknowledge our role in the creation and maintenance of this mundane dystopia. “It’s hard to say where the darkness began,” Anderson says. “It seems to be closing in from around the edges, but it’s possible that it’s coming from inside you.”