Erika M. Anderson used to live in South Dakota, but then she moved to California; her first project, Gowns, released a single album, called Red State; “California,” from her new solo record under the name EMA, Past Life Martyred Saints, begins, “Fuck California/You made me boring.” It might be fair to say place matters to her—although no matter where Red State and “California” take place, they’re not too far from each other, because she writes and sings and, in a sense, composes about doing a lot of drugs, and doing a lot of drugs tends to flatten the world. Past Life’s sense of place mostly doesn’t extend much beyond a room or two and a stuffy head, but like drugs, it makes that place voluptuous and gorgeous, and like something better than drugs, it knows how to escape.
Anderson’s hushed, sometimes raspy voice is the clearest and often the loudest thing in the mix; she whispers an inch from your ear while her music churns around the two of you. Songs build a spidery rattle into a thick, guitar-drenched haze (“Grey Ship,” “Red Star”), or open in chaos and wriggle their way into melody (“Butterfly Knife”), or float delicately atop an eerie rumble (“Marked”), like David Lynch filming a parking lot. “California” is made of overlapping slabs of ridiculously loud hum and buzz, and every instrument in the song sounds gently Dopplered; Anderson stands still while the huge sounds crawl by like slow trains.
With luck, the above sounds at least potentially beautiful, but it might also sound like rough going—like the album is dreary, or too impressed by its own problems. In some ways, it is. Her music is exhaustively interested in investigating the feeling of lying on the carpet in a square of dusty light and trying to remember how long you’ve been high, and lyrically she prefers impressionism to detail; like lots of people, she writes best at her plainest, but probably doubts it. (The brief, playful “Coda” contains several of the album’s best lines, including a thesis statement, teased out for a laugh across a long and meandering line of melody: “These drugs are making me so sad/And I can’t stop taking them.”) But she has a huge talent for drama—when to build, when to break, when to whisper or coo or yell, when to camp a while in a looping melody and when to move on—and the album’s 37 minutes feel majestic and unhurried; lying on the carpet, you could loop it till you got confused. Near the end of the swelling “California,” Anderson slips into four bars of “Camptown Races”—a melodic flutter just before the song comes to rest. It’s a small climax, but generous, too; the next time you hear the song, you look forward to it.
Moments like these break the seal around an album whose subject and tone might curdle into solipsism. Sonically, Past Life is way more attentive to and considerate of its listeners than actual downer addicts usually are, and listening to it can feel intensely intimate, like listening to a fucked-up friend try to explain how much she loves you. There are lots of “you”s in Anderson’s songs, and she keeps trying to hold them closer, or feeling guilty that she hasn’t. “Butterfly Knife” opens with a confession of compassion (“You were a goth in high school/You went and fucked your arms up/They said you’d never do it/But I knew/I knew/I knew”); “Marked” builds toward the stuttered epiphany, “I know I wish/Sometimes just so I could explain things/Explain things/I wish that every time you touched me left a mark”). That last line repeats like a chorus or a prayer: Let me be changed by you.
Doing a lot of drugs makes you think about yourself a lot: how you feel now; how good you could feel if you got high; how much better you could feel if you got higher; how long, at your current rate, you’ll be able to stay high before you have to call someone. That’s why it doesn’t matter if you’re in South Dakota or California when you’re doing them—eventually, you’re just in you. What’s pretty and interesting and sometimes miraculous about EMA is how close she comes to that kind of nullity—how intensely she evokes the self’s close, warm stickiness—and how fiercely she claws her way out of it. This is a feverish, sulking, and extremely stoned record, but it loves you and wants to be close to you, because to mark and be marked is the only way out. At the beginning of “Coda,” sing-songy, a cappella, the creak and grit gone from her suddenly clear voice, Anderson makes a promise: “They say love turns to rot/But I’m gonna give him all I’ve got.”