Exile in the Outer Ring

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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares

Like few other musicians of her generation, EMA's Erika Anderson possesses a gift for blending art, commentary, and empathy. Having examined the potentially ominous intersections of technology and identity on Future's Void and the score to the cyberbullying film #Horror, on her fourth album she tackles a reality that's more terrifying than dystopian sci-fi futures. Anderson presents an apocalyptic vision of nationalism, poverty, and alienation in the U.S. Midwest on Exile in the Outer Ring, her term for America's neglected people and territories. While there were plenty of think-pieces on the heartland following the 2016 Presidential election, Anderson expresses the rage and despair of her home (she's a South Dakota native) with a striking immediacy that's rivaled only by PJ Harvey's Let England Shake and Hope Six Demolition Project. Working with Unknown Mortal Orchestra's Jacob Portrait as co-producer, she combines the unflinching intimacy of her early solo work and her previous band Gowns -- whose 2007 album Red State feels eerily prophetic and serves as a reminder of how long she's cared about these issues -- with the broader perspective of Future's Void. Anderson captures the polarization of people and politics in the late 2010s as Exile in the Outer Ring shifts between dead calm and furious intensity, outbursts and soulful reflection. She immerses her audience in both sides with the album's first two songs, the gentle yet harrowing "7 Years" and the claustrophobic "Breathalyzer," a post-industrial wasteland of a track that hits home that the Outer Ring is a place -- or a state of mind -- suffused with the constant threat of violence. The album's corroded, and corrosive, distortion is withering on "33 Nihilistic and Female," corrupted on "Aryan Nation," a song inspired by the British film This Is England, which speaks to the global nature of these feelings of alienation and radicalization, and transformative on "Fire Water Air LSD," a brief return to Future's Void's hallucinatory hyperreality. Even when Exile in the Outer Ring isn't loud, it's heavy. The simplicity of "Blood and Chalk" and "Down and Out" rings out like they're timeless hymns or protest songs, and on "Receive Love," Anderson lets the album's aching undercurrent finally come to the surface. While it's clear that she empathizes with those in the Outer Ring, the spoken-word finale "Where the Darkness Began" also makes it clear that she's not excusing them ("it's hard to say where the darkness began/but it's possible that it's coming from inside you"). On Exile in the Outer Ring, Anderson calls on listeners to maintain their humanity in powerful, unnerving ways that make it one of her finest achievements.

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