Like many of us, Erika M. Anderson escaped her early 20s alive, but just barely. The harrowing and spectacular Past Life Martyred Saints, which she recorded under the name EMA, is her recollection of the years spent in that post-collegiate daze of faux-grandiosity and encroaching panic that amounts to a Petri dish for terrible life decisions. Anderson takes rueful, angry stock of several such decisions over the course of the album's nine songs. As such, it falls into a rich rock 'n' roll tradition: the Bohemian Squalor Survival Report.
Like the Liz Phair of Exile In Guyville or the Elliott Smith of Either/Or, Anderson comes to us sounding as if she had dragged herself, gasping and on bloodied elbows, away from the big city — in her case, L.A. — that nearly blotted out her soul. She sings with Phair's flat tone and scorched-earth honesty, and Smith's quietly trembling rage, over messy blobs of electric guitar and wispy implications of drums. She hints at body mortification on "Marked" ("My arms, they are see-through plastic/ They are secret bloodless skinless mass"), and then snarls it outright on "Butterfly Knife": "You were a goth in high school/ You've gone and fucked your arms up/ You always talked about it/ They thought you'd never do it." Anderson has a bone-chilling gift for crystallizing her song's messages into one indelible phrase and burying them at the base of your brain. On "Butterfly Knife," she coos, "20 kisses with a butterfly knife." On "Marked," she moans, frighteningly, "I wish that every time he touched me left a mark."
Past Life Martyred Saints isn't just a gothic house of horrors, however. Anderson can be incisively funny: The immortal opening couplet "Fuck California/ You made me boring" belongs in the great rock pantheon of SoCal kiss-offs. There are moments of furtive sweetness, too: "If this time through/ We don't get it right/ I'll come back to you/ In another life" goes the nursery-rhyme chorus of "Anteroom." The record is bathed in warm echo, making it perversely comforting to bask, or wallow in. It uncannily resembles the headspace Anderson depicts — a life period both devoid of and fraught with meaning, somehow simultaneously aimless and volatile. And one that continues to inspire enduring works of art.