EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints (Music Review)

Past Life Martyred Saints cover

EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints

EMA’s music exists in a territory somewhere between songs and performance pieces. The music is generally repetitive grinding or droning, creating a shapeless platform for her lost-sounding voice and frequent non-sequiturs, and the recordings lose quite a bit by not being able to show her dream-like but charismatic performance. Despite that, though, the tracks work well as individual songs, with meaning and cohesion that distances them from most of the lo-fi artsy experiments that it could be compared to. It’s rare for music like this to win me over, but her release Past Life Martyred Saints managed to do it.

An edgy energy flows through the performance. Usually it’s in the amusical instrumentation or angstful lyrics, but it feels perfectly natural on the occasions when an angry noise breaks through the calm surface. These fit naturally into a complex persona that makes the occasional vague, boring stretch forgivable. Those stretches do exist, unfortunately, but they don’t define the album.

EMA is still young, and still clearly recalls the teen angst she sings about: The brutal “Butterfly Knife” is an unapologetic story of self-mutilation (“You were a goth in high school/You cut and fucked your arms up… 20 kisses with a butterfly knife”), and “Marked” portrays her as a hollow soul (“My arms they are a see-through plastic”) craving dangerous validation (“I wish that every time he touched me left a mark”). In some ways, Past Life Martyred Saints feels a little like a college art thesis that managed to take on a life of its own. It has that exuberant but sometimes-unfinished quality that can be embarrassing ten years later, and hopefully the success she found here won’t stop her from the experimentation and development that should still be in front of her.

Past Life Martyred Saints covers everything from Stephen Foster references to off-key acapella. It is bookended by two songs over six minutes long: “Grey Ship” and “Red Star”. The former sets the tone by wandering between breathy folk and electronic drone, while the latter closes the album with a more traditional song structure. The triumphant conclusion finds her with the mature conviction to leave a man who’s no good for her. Whether or not those two songs are meant to thematically define the album, there’s no doubt that it covers a lot of ground and hints at further development in the future. EMA is an artist to watch.

Grade: B

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