Heavy. Droning. Brooding. All of these adjectives can be cherry-picked to describe, shallowly, EMA’s debut solo album, ‘Past Life Martyred Saints’. However, this is an album that deserves and demands a full inspection before assigning it buzzwords. The former Gowns singer has crafted a work of tragedy and of emotional rebellion, melding teenage frustrations with mature songwriting and a knack for melodies. One need only listen to lead single and contender for this reviewer’s song of the year “California” to understand. Starting off with a memorably antagonistic “fuck California, you made me boring”, the track buzzes on as EMA demonizes California for its perceived lack of morality. It’s a 21st-century “Welcome to the Jungle” (a track that Anderson has proclaimed to be a major influence on her life), and where that track succeeds so does this one: she’s still in California despite all of its flaws. Perhaps it’s because, as she puts it, “[she's] just 22, [she doesn't] mind dying”.
The rest of the album works precisely because it builds on that same kind of honesty and almost defeated sense of introspection. The 7-minute opener, “The Grey Ship”, contains a line that, if need be, defines EMA’s musical life view: “Blue sky is silver blue”. Simple, perhaps to a flaw, the line still manages to get across a lot in just 5 words. And that’s where EMA’s lyrical prowess shines best: when she puts out simple ideas and feelings with emotion and lets them do what they do best, which is connect. Of course, she also delves into much darker territory on the album, as she does on “Marked”, a song about an abusive relationship that contains the chilling sentiment: “I wish that every time he touched me left a mark.”
Musically, EMA is no slouch either, as her arrangements shine throughout, especially when they swirl back and forth without building too much. Mostly, she allows her wonderful voice to take center stage, with low and drowning guitars playing as context noise. She even does away with the music all together for the sneaky-good “Coda”, a minute of just vocals nestled neatly in the mathematical median of the album. Elsewhere, the pace does eventually pick up, as the album closer “Red Star” features a 90s-sounding guitar riff that could have fit in a Smashing Pumpkins song as well as it does here. In fact, it is grunge that most seems to have influenced EMA. Most of the themes are logical progressions from the Nirvanas and Alice in Chains of yore, only they are tuned for what it means to be alienated in 2011.
And this is where ‘Past Life Martyred Saints’ works at its best: reviving the past and the nostalgic by honestly conjuring up the present. What it doesn’t do so well, and believe me when I say that this is a compliment, is that it doesn’t allow itself to be judged on a first listen. Dark. Depressing. Unrelenting. These are more adjectives that could work as press bits, but there’s only one that would do the album justice: rewarding.
Written by Luis Paez-PumarEMA – “California” by YiN Magazine