The thing about the perennially-invoked sophomore slump is that it doesn’t always have to do with quality. Yes, some bands succumb to the old problem of having to produce a follow up under more scrutiny and with less time that their debut, but even acts that manage to turn out a solid album the second time around can leave the listener a little unsatisfied. Perversely enough, for this to happen, their first record has to be really good.
And not just really good; that first album has to be great in a certain kind of self-sufficient way, where it feels like its it own perfect little world. Fans of that kind of album (whether done by Interpol or Jens Lekman) can get a bit thrown off when the next one comes out and it’s… more of the same, kind of. Our reaction is often kind of ridiculous: “look, I know I said I loved the aesthetic and the sound and the atmosphere here, but I don’t want that any more, I expect you to come up with a wholly new world that will beguile me as strikingly as the last one did”. However, usually listeners can eventually reconcile themselves to the idea that the artist is going to be a working musician with a lengthy career (hopefully) and that the debut should be properly regarded as the opening salvo in an ongoing artistic effort and not some miraculous pearl, never to be followed up on.
All of which is me kind of trying to argue myself into enjoying Joan Wasser’s second album as the leader of Joan As Police Woman a bit more than I actually am. Their debut Real Life was one of the truly great albums of 2006, albeit one that might have suffered a little from coming out around the same time as Emily Haines’ equally incredible Knives Don’t Have Your Back. The media being as it is, relatively few places had time for two records featuring great female songwriters, piano, and an uneasy but potent mix of emotional devastation and rebirth, despite the fact that the two albums are miles apart in anything but quality. “Eternal Flame” got a little bit of exposure, a great song that gains a bit of eerie impact when you realize that Jeff Buckley wrote “Everybody Here Wants You” about then-girlfriend Wasser and that “Eternal Flame” might be the mourning/loving/regretful response (in which case, the bit in the video where they all march down to the sea is kind of fraught, eh?).
It’s not as if listeners eager to interpolate similar storylines into To Survive will be unable to; although only Wasser knows how transparent these tracks really are, the fact that the first single ends “but then you found me, and I’m happy to be loved” after Real Life’s account of the slow thaw that accompanies moving on and living life gives trainspotters a place to start. But it’s not context (or, less charitably, gossip) that makes “Eternal Flame” capable of causing the hairs on the back of your neck to rise, despite manifesting as nothing more overtly stirring than a gentle sway—it is songcraft, from the ragged call and response “yes”es on down.
And “Eternal Flame” wasn’t alone. Although most of the album’s 38 minutes was packed tight with atmospheric balladry, it also had “Christobel” which surged in a way nothing else the band has done seems to. With those two aboard Real Life was structured like a less dramatic version of Camera Obscura’s Let’s Get Out of This Country, where the few more immediately ingratiating tracks scattered throughout gave you time to sink into the rich surroundings of the rest of the record.
To Survive lacks an “Eternal Flame” or a “Christobel”. Although “Start of My Heart” is a beautiful song, it is if anything even more lugubrious in tempo than most of To Survive. “Hard White Wall” eventually swells to a gorgeous conclusion but starts as close as Wasser is probably capable of to Feist style blandness. And while most of “Magpies” is great, even this avowed Gaucho fan can’t quite get a handle on those Steely Dan-esque backing vocalists in this context. These and the other songs are uniformly lovely, and it’s hard to complain about that, but they don’t leap out at you as parts of Real Life did.
Viewed as a whole To Survive is probably even a little stronger as an album than Real Life, but it lacks the peaks and valleys that made the latter so compelling, and fairly or not suffers a bit to my ears from being not an introduction to Joan As Police Woman’s world as a continuation of it. But while it doesn’t quite bring one up short as Real Life did, To Survive does something arguably even more valuable; it shows that the debut was in no way a fluke, and that Joan As Police Woman are in this for the long haul. It’s never quite as special again after your first time, but that just means I envy those who have the chance to experience the band fresh with To Survive.