The sheer range of projects Joan Wasser has been involved with since studying at Boston University in the early 1990s bears testament to her musical vision. Having started out playing violin in the city’s symphony orchestra, she was also a member of several rock bands in a period during which she also dated the late, great Jeff Buckley.
By 2002 she was recording her own songs under the name Joan As Police Woman, and has gone on to release five studio albums, while at the same time working as a violinist for hire with artists as diverse as Sheryl Crow, Rufus Wainwright and Antony And The Johnsons.
She’s also developed a passion for African music, travelling to Ethiopia to work on Damon Albarn‘s Africa Express project. Since the release of her last album – 2016’s collaboration with Benjamin Lazar Davis, Let It Be You – alone, Joan has worked alongside fashion designers Viktor & Rolf as well as a list of musicians including Sufjan Stevens, RZA and most recently Daniel Johnston. As the singer herself admits, “I say yes to almost everything.”
Over her career, Joan has developed a sound not dissimilar to fellow Americans Cat Power and St Vincent, albeit slightly poppier than the former and less wilfully strange than the latter. While Let It Be You was an unexpected tangent into the rhythms of the pygmy music of the Central African Republic, generally speaking her music has become fuller and more expansive over the years, with the simple, confessional angst of her 2006 debut Real Life evolving into the lusher, more soulful timbres of later records like 2014’s The Classic. Damned Devotion finds Joan stripping her compositions back once again to something closer to her earlier work, although the musical backdrop lacks the organic fragility of Real Life, which it seems may have gone forever from her sound.
The single Warning Bell offered a solid benchmark for the album that follows: replete with as starkly honest storytelling as ever with its tale of romantic regret; stripped back, yes, but still with a hefty dollop of soul, and featuring electronic textures and beats rather than ‘real’ instruments. These elements predominate throughout Damned Devotion, whether it’s the echoing vocals and R&B swing of Tell Me, the discordant, dysfunctional Rely On, or opening track Wonderful’s languid, smoky croon.
There are nuances, too: the title track’s soaring, ethereal chorus is the closest Joan gets to St Vincent’s arthouse anthemics, and The Silence’s aggressive chanting and scabrous synths, which carry a hint of Siouxsie And The Banshees. The album peaks with the elegantly chilly Valid Jogger, in which Joan implores “sing, don’t lie to me” above a gently oscillating electric piano and skittering percussion.
Lyrically, she remains a distinctive voice, with lines like Warning Bell’s “Even in the water/ you are so soft in the corner/ soft where you shouldn’t be/ and I just died for it every time” typifying her gift for original, vulnerable, slightly unsettling imagery. Where Damned Devotion falls a little short is in the quality of its tunes, with some tracks lacking zest and winning hooks – the Dido-like blandness of What Was It Like is particularly culpable. But while Damned Devotion is not the Police Woman at her most arresting, it is nevertheless a solid showing from a performer who always has plenty to say.