There’s a telling moment in “The Law”, one of the most outwardly morose songs on Emily Jane White’s second full-length album, Ode To Sentience. The singer has seen it all– “a glimpse of mortal hell,” “the dark side of the law”– but three verses in, she reveals something that shouldn’t be taken for granted in a song as interior and confessional as “The Law”, and on an album as tirelessly self-involved as Ode To Sentience. The singer reveals that there’s a “you,” that she’s actually talking to someone, or at least pretending to: “Do you dwell alone, in a room of one’s own?” she asks, in a line all too fitting for the Californian songwriter, with her remarkable penchant for gloomy one-liners.
But as the singer repeats the line again in her hushed whisper, it becomes clear that the question is only rhetorical; she’s talking to, or at least about, herself. The best moments on Ode To Sentience are similarly self-involved. White works her way through the record struggling in imagined dialogues with the ghosts of past lovers, giving advice to others in “The Cliff”, when no one needs the help but the narrator. “And I would turn the key just to hear you talk,” White pleads on the final song of the record, “Broken Words”, begging for a response to her confessions, just a hint that someone is listening.
After her debut E.P. and first album, White seemed firmly pegged as a gloomy, miserabilist artist, a champion of the sad song. But Ode To Sentience, while it’s far from being a radical departure, has plenty of surprises. There are minor chords and mourning string arrangements throughout, but there’s pedal steel on “Broken Words”, a light breath of fresh air. There’s tight composition and clever pop songwriting in “The Black Oak”, and bright drums lead the way on “The Cliff”, another song with a country tilt. In a song about someone thinking about taking their life, White summons Townes Van Zandt, or maybe he just reminds her of herself: “It’s as if you were waiting around to die, and you found something to mend the frayed corners of your mind.”
It’s worth noting that there’s an explicit “you” being addressed in every song on Ode To Sentience. If sentience is the ability to have subjective experience, then White’s new album is a convincing testament to the sad solipsism in talking to someone, in talking at them, and about them, when they can’t even hear you.
Essential Tracks: ”Black Oak”, “The Cliff”, and “The Law”