Review by Heather Phares
If To Survive is any indication, Joan Wasser's life after Real Life is calmer, but no less thoughtful, than it was before her beautifully stormy debut album. Real Life was a major statement, filled with a lifetime's worth of catharsis. To Survive doesn't try for that scope -- as the title suggests, these songs are about day to day concerns that are no less vital: aloneness, togetherness, love, hope, and righteous anger. However, Joan as Police Woman's "beauty is the new punk rock" aesthetic is used just as powerfully here, with the same kind of delicate bravery and strong vulnerability. Wasser can still set a scene like few others: "Honor Wishes" drops listeners into a sultry heart to heart, and the way she draws out "Would you love me? Would you trust me?" as she sings is as wounded as it is seductive, turning the song into a dance of understanding between two people in the middle of the night. A pair of songs make up To Survive's heart: "To Be Loved" is hopeful but bittersweet, celebrating new love and recognizing what it took to get to it with soulful brass and realizations like "when you found me I could not be loved, but then I found me and I'm happy to be loved." "To Be Lonely" is bittersweet but hopeful, wishing for lasting love with hypnotic, incantation-like simplicity and yearning pianos. These mirror image songs reveal the yin-yang chase of love and loneliness so well and so intimately that everything else on To Survive could be mediocre and it'd still be well worth hearing, but the rest of the album is nearly as strong. The easy, elegant sensuality that peeked out on Real Life from time to time is in full flower here, playfully on "Holiday" and more insistently on "Hard White Wall," where soft harmonies and keyboards contrast with driven rhythm guitars. Rebirth and gratitude are also major themes on To Survive, and though it's often more challenging to write about happiness in a meaningful way, Wasser finds unique ways to channel those feelings on the luminous tribute "Start of My Heart." Sonically speaking, To Survive is softer and cleaner than Real Life, in keeping with its more serene outlook. This works especially well on "Magpies'" sparkling melody, but the polished production distances some of the album's more intense moments, as on the politically charged "Furious," where Wasser's outrage and impatience feel a bit removed. To Survive is most affecting with songs like "To Survive," when it feels like you're sitting next to her on her piano bench. While Real Life was so fully realized that it seemed to have a life of its own, To Survive feels more like songs written by somebody than something that materialized because it had to. On those terms, the album is very, very good, and when it closes with fireworks on "To America," it might not be a completely happy ending, but it shows that in order to survive real life, it's necessary to embrace the uplifting parts of it as well as the desperate ones.