“Wounds are where the light gets in”, sings Joan Wasser on ‘The Silence’, the standout track of her seventh album as Joan As Police Woman. If anyone would know the truth of that statement then it is the American singer/songwriter, whose life has been marked (though clearly not defined) by a series of untimely deaths to loved ones, from family members to boyfriends – including two fathers in the last couple of years. Unsurprisingly, Damned Devotion is a pensive, though never morose, album – but also one that sees her cutting loose musically and engaging new styles of production and songwriting. It may be her most complete collection yet.
Opening with the slow and sensuous groove of ‘Wonderful’, it’s apparent that Wasser is returning to the simpler, more stripped-back sounds of her early solo albums. Much of the first half of Damned Devotion has the sheen of classic 70s AOR at its heart, but that is meant as no criticism – it allows Wasser’s voice to wash over you, and brings to mind a similar sound to Lucy Rose’s triumphant Something’s Changing last year. ‘Warning Bell’, where she sings of her propensity to leap into love without looking (“I never see it coming, always look the wrong way round”) is a beautifully pitched moment, as is the following ‘Tell Me’. In these opening moments, the album presents itself as an impeccably performed collection of intelligent pop and soul before pulling the rug from underneath. From there, it ventures down stranger paths.
Describing the writing process as, “More experimental than in the past”, the twitchy, slinky rhythm of ‘Steed (For Jean Genet)’ is interlaced with patches of trumpet sound. It is closer in spirit to St Vincent or David Byrne, and as Wasser sings: “Press me up against the starry night, then turn me over” she perfectly captures the erotic essence of the titular French novelist. A very faint “Yeah!” can be heard at the song’s finale, summing up the sonic kick that it gives the rest of the album. The title track sees Parker Kindred’s beat cut and spliced together with a simple yet persistent piano echo from Thomas Bartlett. Wasser has spoken of the trio being, “The crux of this album”, and it really shows – both here and on ‘The Silence’. Many of Wasser’s lyrics seem purposefully oblique, but as she sings: “It’s the silence that’s dulling the blade” before a sample from crowds at the Washington Women’s March, it’s not hard to recognise the political and social context. The album is now very far from its seemingly easy-listening beginnings, and is all the more special for it.
Where some of her previous albums have suffered from perhaps being too easy to put on in the background, Damned Devotion demands that you sit up and take notice. There is so much intricacy and intrigue going on in the background, that it would be a damned sin to miss it. The slow, deliberate piano of ‘Rely On’ is almost r’n’b or trip-hop in nature, with Wasser seeming to implore someone to learn to rely on themselves rather than some other spiritual being – bubblegum pop topics these are not. Her voice is exceptionally silky and seductive, with the exception of ‘What Was It Like’ – a touching tribute to the father who brought her up, where the guard around her voice finally seems to dissipate as she fondly sings of the past.
Don’t make the mistake of listening to Damned Devotion once, twice or even three times and expect it to give up its charms and secrets straight away. It is a record that slowly reveals itself, where track by track something slowly but firmly clicks into place. When given the time, attention (and yes, devotion) that it deserves, it shows itself to be a superlative meditation on life’s biggest subjects. Superb.