Review Summary: "I'm just 22, and I don't mind dying."Past Life Martyred Saints
is a curious beast. The debut record from Erika M. Anderson demands a visceral reaction, its gut-churning sonics prompting either revulsion, rapture, or a healthy dose of both. But it's also an album that takes its sweet time to really get under your skin. There's a palpable sense of displacement and uncertainty that permeates every scraping sound, every wistful melody, and every vulnerable syllable. Listening to it, I'm reminded of Public Strain
, Women's superb 2010 sophomore album, in the way that the production's scuzzy and ostensibly ugly quality is inexorably linked to the intensely personal nature of the music itself. Anderson's songs explore the contrast between rough-edged noise and simple melodies, much as "Narrow With The Hall" did last year. But where Women's reverb-heavy approach intentionally obscured lyrics and conveyed an oddly compelling facelessness, Anderson is up front and center, fully owning
her occasionally chaotic surroundings.
Yet she never displays confidence in herself; if her presence is assertive, her words are anything but. Phrases are distended and torn apart, fragmentary in nature, incisive in tone without ever revealing their full meanings or intentions. "Fuck California, you made me boring," she spits out - a blunt statement, to be sure, but more allusive than explicit. This lends a surreal tone to Anderson's suggestive stream of consciousness: "You're bleeding from the fingertips / you rubbed me wrong / and I'm here when I think of you / oh, California." It's tempting to say that Anderson sounds wounded and defeated, what with her despondent lyrics and drone-heavy arrangements, but there's also a feeling of uplift to the whole affair. With the exception of the epic, slow-boiling opener "Grey Ship", Anderson gravitates towards major keys and ascending figures - superficial signifiers of mood, to be sure, but in a world where unimaginative and maudlin approaches to harmony and melody are used as a cheap method of expressing emotion, worth noting.
Which isn't to say that Past Life Martyred Saints
is either fundamentally simplistic nor "complex". Rather, it's appealingly unkempt. "Marked" initially grabs the ear with its curiously dissonant noises and Anderson's raspy delivery, but what really cuts deepest is the haunting moment where Anderson breathily repeats, "I wish that every time he touched me left a mark." It's a line that has countless implications and taps into unfamiliar, uncomfortable emotional territory. Anderson has said that "Marked" was written in a "hallucinatory state" and came out fully formed in one take, which helps explain the song's simultaneously cryptic and confessional tone and is indicative of Anderson's intensely (and, in an odd way, meticulously) liberated approach to working. Not every track is particularly galvanizing, but at the very least, there is not a single instant where Anderson seems to be slacking off; in fact, the album's only real misfire, "Milkman", is the result of Anderson's scrappy nature being taken a bit too far, almost to the point of contrivance.
But it feels dirty to even think of using a word like "contrivance" in reference to what Anderson has created here, because even when it's difficult to listen to, Past Life Martyred Saints
feels absolutely genuine. It isn't terribly far removed from Anderson's previous work as the frontwoman of Gowns, but why would it ever have to be? After all, that band's greatest asset was its primal, uninhibited, and painfully exposed emotion. Here, Anderson is just as unrestrained, even when the framework she's working within is - on the beautifully understated "Breakfast", she spins intense feeling from a simple ambiguous phrase like "Mama's in the bedroom, don't you stop". And she's equally at home being accusatory, but only towards herself; "You were a goth in high school / you cried and fucked your arms up," she sings bitterly on "Butterfly Knife". Insecurities breed steely anger, while simple statements of seeming unimportance take on layers of thoughtful subtext. It could be overwhelming - and Past Life Martyred Saints
sometimes does feel oppressively heavy - but Anderson's definitive personality gives the album a distinct center, her countless uncertainties and perpetual sense of displacement serving as an impressively strong anchor. Eschewing a traditional emotional release in favor of a frighteningly intimate perspective that is no less cathartic, Anderson has crafted an imperfect work that, even when it's hard to like, is impossible not to love.