Joan As Police Woman

To Survive

(Cheap Lullaby; 2008)

By Danny Roca | 10 December 2008

With a debut as feral and inventive as Real Life, To Survive shouldn’t be this bleak. Surely, having laid herself bare on plaintive cries such as “Save Me” and “Anyone,” the musical cartharsis must have spent itself. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your current mental health, To Survive is not a serene Stepford Wife-grinned evangelist spouting empty exaltations. To Survive is akin to Alcoholics Anonymous: a raw, tumultuous, and honest walk through the intensity and insanity of love and belonging.

“To Be Loved” may woo with its opening line but it bears the shadowed eyes of someone weeping in gin-soaked misery until 5 in the morning. “I’m so happy to be loved,” sings Wasser, “throw me down and light me there ‘cause I’m an awful mess.” The opening “Honor Wishes” holds one of the most desperate of come on lines—“Would you love me and not my need to be loved?”—while “The Start Of My Heart,” a brooding synth dirge, revels in its self-revulsion: “You chained me down and taught me the damage I’ve done.”

By the end of the album, Joan’s inner unrest is turned outwards. “To Survive” and “To America,” when segued together, seemingly tell the story of a couple torn apart as their search for prosperity tears down the illusory sense of hope that drove them to emigrate. “To Survive” plays Joan as the one to suggest breaking the “spell in our haunted house” and chase “the spark to survive.” Her hopes are dashed as she is deserted on “To America” as her lover, Rufus Wainwright, croons, “I am sure of longing to be on the open sea,” leaving Joan with a final goodbye, “Lose me in your memory… let me become a part of it.” As the Brechtian pianos and clarinets transform into brass and the sound of bursting fireworks, it is clear she, once again, has let herself be convinced that he is better off without her.

It’s this constant refrain of submissiveness that errs on the side of worrisome. Joan paints herself as a fragile anti-heroine troubled by the absence of belonging. It’s telling that the album throws down its intention with the constant appearance of the preposition “to.” The word normally indicates action or suggests movement toward a subject, but in Joan’s hands it suggests goals unreached, arguments unsettled, hopes unrealised. That “To Be Loved” backs on to “To Be Lonely” indicates that these are merely two sides of the same coin. “To Be Lonely,” a sparse piano ballad with all the delicateness of Satie’s Gymnopodies, goes as far as to spell it out for us: “This is the one I will try to be lonely with.”

And it is this which makes her comparisons with Feist a little unfair. Although her voice lives somewhere between Feist’s whispered coos and, in places, Norah Jones’ feline croon, Wasser shares neither Feist’s childlike playfulness or Jones’ smug worthiness. Musically, she mirrors her work with Antony & the Johnsons and Rufus Wainwright. The title track is a simple string and piano piece as morose as Wainwright’s “Es Mus Sein” or “This Love Affair,” while “Honor Wishes” flips from 5/4 to 3/4 with a bludgeoning, funereal piano line and brushed snares. “Magpies,” despite its affinity with Ben Fold’s jazzy chord progressions and close harmonies, is cut by irritable Psycho string swoops and inconclusive suspended chords. Even on the relatively upbeat “Furious,” the baroque wurlitzers are more in keeping with Muse’s dextrous miserablism than any Polyphonic Spree soundtracked funfair. This music can be difficult, but through its brooding emotional core and sophisticated, understated arrangements To Survive is also one of the most satisfying albums of 2008, melancholic and unloveable though it may often be.