After the success of 2011s Past Life Martyred Saints and 2014s prophetic The Future s Void, EMA retreated to a basement in Portland, Oregon a generic apartment complex in a non-trendy neighborhood, with beige carpeting and cheap slat blinds. Now, she returns, with a portrait of The Outer Ring: A pitch-black world of dark night highways, American flags hung over basement windows, jails and revival meetings and casinos and rage. In a year dominated by white working-class alienation and anger, EMA a Midwesterner who never lost her thousand-yard stare -- has delivered an album that renders Middle American poverty and resentment with frightening realism and deep empathy.
I want to explain to outsiders that the people where I come from arent beyond hope and reason , says EMA, I want this record to bridge a divide. The album, co-produced with Jacob Portrait of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, is a return to EMA s roots in the noise-folk outfit Gowns, whose 2007 album Red State prefigured many of Exile s core themes, along with its mix of stripped-back folk ( Always Bleeds, originally a Gowns song), spoken word ( Where the Darkness Began ) and noise epics ( Breathalyzer ). The album is unique in its mingling of gender politics with American working-class anxiety. The voices we hear in these songs druggy, surly societal outcasts; Byronic nihilists bringing down fire speak to a kind of rebellion that s typically reserved for men, and the archetype of the dirtbag teenage boy dominates the album. Yet EMA claims some of that same dirtbag alienation for women a woman who swallowed a scumbag teen boy whole, as EMA puts it and uses it to interrogate both her own vulnerability and how male violence shapes the world, as on the anthemic Aryan Nation. The result is a deeply personal, confrontational, but ultimately redemptive album from a quintessentially American artist at the peak of her form.