The suburbs are a recurring theme in pop culture, and media about them usually centers around a familiar trope: the idea that, beneath the well-trimmed lawns and tranquility, there lies a darkness within the people, who are portrayed as unhappy or desperate even in their seemingly wonderful surroundings. My fear was that EMA’s new album, Exile in the Outer Ring, would cover similar thematic territory as lazy satires like American Beauty and center on that dissonance. Instead, she has made an album that is much more nuanced, much more real, and one that accurately cuts to the heart of a specific type of American existence.
That existence is people living in what she dubs “the outer ring,” an idea she explained in a recent interview with Jezebel:
To me it’s kind of like the outskirts of a city and what would have once been thought of as the suburbs. The idea of the suburbs is kind of outdated, that kind of affluent, white, homogeneous area. But now in Portland and I think a lot of European and American cities, the inner city is really where the wealth is concentrated and everyone else is getting pushed out. So I’m seeing these spots that I’m calling the outer ring, which could either be a version of utopia or dystopia.
I thought the concept was rather nebulous when I just read her explaining it, but what makes Exile in the Outer Ring such an effective album is how it comes to life in the music. All you have to do is listen to one of the songs and it’s easy to see what the “outer ring” is and what it’s about. It’s conveyed not just through the lyrics, which are full of specific lyrical details like riding in the back of Camrys or people standing outside of casinos, but through the music itself. The grinding industrial sound and squealing guitars evoke images of worn-down buildings and grimy streets, and EMA’s voice captures a feeling of resentment and despair that could boil over at any moment (on some of the more aggressive tracks, like “33 Nihilistic and Female,” it does).
The other obvious pitfall of an album like this is that it could come off as EMA writing about Those People and the Way They Live, which was a problem I had last year with PJ Harvey’s Hope Six Demolition Project album. She avoids this by inserting herself into the narratives, and using details from her personal life and upbringing in South Dakota that make these songs live and breathe instead of reading like attempts at journalism. I also like that the album isn’t just portraying “the outer ring” simplistically as some nightmarish hellscape. It skews darker overall, but there are also moments of prettiness and humanity amid the ugliness, which makes the album feel very true to life.
This album is also a nice progression for EMA, who blew me away with her debut album, Past Life Martyred Saints, which I loved because it was an album that was unafraid to get ugly and confront the darker side of human nature. This album is reminiscent of that one in its fearlessness, and it also incorporates parts of what she did on her second album, The Future’s Void, which felt more external and political. Exile in the Outer Ring is like a combination of those two: it’s a bracing blend of personal and political songwriting that is provocative and dark, but also full of life.