It’s the first show of EMA’s new album tour, at Union Pool in Brooklyn, and things are going wrong. Her collaborator Leif Shackelford has been having trouble with his equipment all night, and about halfway through “Milkman,” something seems to fail completely. Shackelford bolts offstage, leaving three bewildered bandmates staring at where he’s supposed to be. They finish the song anyway, and Erika M. Anderson — she of the EMA acronym — gently admonishes Shackelford when he reappears. He explains what’s gone wrong, and then smiles: “C’mon, you had more fun finishing that song than anything else you’ve done tonight.” She chuckles ruefully. Speaking into the mic to make sure the whole place can hear her, she replies: “It’s true. I like it when things are all fucked up.”
For much of her career, Erika M. Anderson’s work has involved addressing things that are all fucked up. She first came to attention with Gowns, whose sole full-length release was the minor masterpiece Red State, a record that played like a sort of sonic companion piece to Larry Clark’s Tulsa, a harrowing portrait of narcotized alienation in small-town America. Gowns disintegrated in 2010, three years after Red State was released. Anderson disappeared for a while.
And then in 2011, she re-emerged as EMA. Her debut solo album, Past Life Martyred Saints, started with the unfinished remains of what would have been the second Gowns record and evolved into one of the most intensely personal pieces of work you’ll ever hear — its songs encompassed abusive relationships, self-mutilation, drug use, and depression, forming a sort of narrative that began with grey emptiness and ended in a red starburst of liberation. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about both Red State and Past Life Martyred Saints was that, despite their subject matter, their songs were never sensationalistic or overly dramatic. They just were.
The consensus on EMA’s new album, The Future’s Void, is that it’s a step away from the confessionalism of her previous work. On first listen, you can definitely understand why: the imagery of scars and butterfly knives and see-through plastic arms is gone, replaced by something more abstract. The album is, according to critics, About The Internet — something that annoys Anderson, who is at pains to tell me that “I did not want to make the whole [album] about that, and I’d like to get that straight.” And, indeed, the songs on The Future’s Void deal with a diverse range of subject matter: the end of the Cold War, the simple joy of a riot grrrl friendship, celebrity culture, the industrial revolution.
If there’s a unifying lyrical theme, it’s not the Internet so much as the experience of being alive in 2014. Cyberspace is clearly an important part of the album, but only in the respect that it’s an important part of everyone‘s life today. In particular, The Future’s Void examines issues of identity, which all of us face, to some extent — the idea that your online self is to some extent a separate being, one whose existence and behavior is something you can’t completely control. As Anderson sings in “3Jane,” “Disassociation… it’s just a modern disease.”
On the album’s cover, Anderson wears an Oculus Rift, staring into some virtual world that only she can see. It’s an image that’s very much of the now — the Rift has been in the news of late, after all — and one that’s also strikingly futuristic. Turn the album over, though, and look at the back cover. The vision is gone from the headset; we see that Anderson is sitting on a concrete floor. Her hands clutch the Oculus’s power cable like it’s some sort of lifeline. It’s suddenly a disconcerting image, because where her face should be, there’s only blackness. A void.
But then, Anderson’s music has always been about looking into the void.