I paid limited attention to Erika M. Anderson’s passage through the ensembles Amps for Christ andGowns. I’m not even sure I know what AFC tracks she contributed to. Their stuff only engages me a little. I couldn’t call myself a fan. And while I enjoyed part of Red State, the album Anderson and her collaborator Ezra Buchla recorded as Gowns in 2008, I wasn’t, you know, transformed. With Past Life of Martyred Saints I surrender.
As EMA (Erika M. Anderson), Anderson takes all the archetypal, iconic female artist references, puts them in a bag, shakes them up and out spills something that’s sounds influenced, for sure, but finally unique. Let’s name them: you know, get it out of the way (we’ll return to the relevant ones where necessary) – Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, Tori Amos, Cat Power, Courtney Love (nah, sorry, don’t hear it – although I do hear Kurt). Forget about that, though. Past Life Martyred Saints is a cogent, compelling work and a doozy of a solo debut from EMA. Anderson has a sympathetic supporting cast, but she’s responsible for the songs, lead vocals and plenty of guitars. Buchla remains as a central contributor on this record, spreading plenty of John Cale magic (keys and viola) that occasionally evokes the sound of vintage Nico.
PLMA is as raw and evocative as any debut album by a woman since PJ Harvey’s Dry in 1992. Some artists have the ability to expose viscera aesthetically, keeping histrionics at bay – possessing the stealth to investigate raw emotional states with dignity. Anderson is patient. She’s not afraid to build an arrangement slowly. This is evident on the opening cut “The Grey Ship.” It starts as a captivating, if ungainly lo-fi folk ballad. At 1:30 she nails some Cure/Porl Thompson guitar lines, accompanied by keys straight out of the dark side of Cars (Greg Hawkes). Gradually, the song’s instrumental motif resembles Nirvana’s “Pennyroyal Tea.” At 6:00, a staccato guitar attack takes over. Anderson’s described the song as being about being called back to her Nordic ancestral origins. The woman’s from South Dakota; there’s plenty of time, plenty of space. It’s both blessing and curse. With “The Grey Ship” I hear the hurt and prairie stoicism that penetrates those wholes in time and space.
On “California” she accuses her adopted state of “making her boring.’ Nah, but again she examines the emotions under the surface, in this case the vacuous abstractions of California cool – “you corrupted us all with your sexuality” and “”(you) tried to tell us that love was free.” No matter how persuasive the hipster images may be, women are still asking Carole King’s question: Will you still love me tomorrow. “California” explodes like Patti Smith’s “Birdland” (or especially “Piss Factory”) with unexpurgated emotion as Anderson moves from Bo Diddley’s lyrics (“just turned twenty-two and I don’t mind dying”) to “Camptown Races” quotations - sheets of distorted guitar and keyboards envelop the track, Anderson revealing more about emotional states than the state of California.
“Anteroom” finds her building a mantra-like harmony on the line “I’ll come back to you in another life.” Even more haunting is “Marked.” As she near-whispers “I wish that every time he touched me left a mark” you can’t be sure if she’s expressing longing for the beloved or the desire that an abuser leave evidence. Or as Jimi Hendrix pondered: “is this love, baby, or is it confusion.” On “Marked” and “Coda” she laments that “the drugs” make her sad. What drugs? Why is she taking them? If they make her sad … well, hell – why not stop? Anderson’s art isn’t about tying up loose ends, but exposing them. PLMS is about the struggle between emergence and identity and submergence and hiding. The dark ambiguity of “Marked” is reinforced by “Breakfast,” Anderson sings “you feel just like a priest to me” as guitar quietly seers in the background. It’s as if the blasé assurances of California (as state of mind) miss the sexual terror lurking under the surface of casual pleasure, but Anderson doesn’t.
Anderson has a way with building vocal tracks, bringing a clamorous (dis)harmony that ebbs and flows, and alternates between the sweet and the disturbing. “Butterfly Knife” is a perfect example. The song (20 kisses with a butterfly knife”) suggests cutting, suicide, the dark side of being a high school Goth in the remote Dakotas.
But ultimately PLMS says more about Anderson’s strength than her vulnerability. On “Red Star,” amid phased, backward guitar tracks, she intones “I’ve been holding on the one for that strange revelation.” Interlocking guitar lines suggest Richard Thompson locked into a metallic groove with Lou Reed, a ballad becoming beautifully unhinged - as Anderson’s whisper of a voice gets bigger and bigger she sings “I know nothing lasts forever. If you won’t love me, someone will.” Then she repeats “Like a Red Star” in blood red, robust harmony, a thrilling climax that’s as big as the more intimate moments on PLMS are hushed. From South Dakota to Cali, from a whisper to a scream, between innocence and experience … Erika M. Anderson covers a lot of territory on PLMS. It’s not easy listening. It sure as hell isn’t perfect. But I think it rewards the commitment you have to give it. Its raw beauty is disarming.