Ghosts are simultaneous presence and absence, a duality that’s at odds with everything about being human and absolutely captivating because of it. It’s little wonder ghosts have been adopted as a device for novelists, poets, and critical theorists alike, imbue marketing materials for every historical place, and even become a self-promotion vehicle for attention-starved bros. The otherworldly plane is supposed to be frightening, but I’ve always found it sad. If your ultimate end is to become a paralyzed shade of your former self, able to see but not react, capable of movement but unable to enact real change…what could be worse?
This particular ghostly trait plays a significant role in Emily Jane White’s ironically titled third album, Ode to Sentience. The album retains White’s affinity for doomy self-reliance, but aside from that overarching trait, Sentience is a markedly different album from her past efforts. It’s all musty corners, scratchy grey moors, cold days. Songs delve into tenuous relationships, paint pictures of bound women, and envision Satan as a dashing Novel of Manners dreamboat. It’s all lack and isolation and guttering candles and clipped wings.
We think of sentience as synonymous with being alive – but it actually just means the ability to feel and perceive. And as White reminds us time and again on this album, that’s something you don’t have to be completely present to do. Spooky-sexy waltz “The Black Oak” playfully addresses these there/ not there and care/ don’t care dichotomies: “No matter what happens to me/ I cling to you and you cling to me” and “I can count the ways I’d never come back,” a phrase that changes to “I can count the ways I’ll always come back” in ensuing verses.
On 2009’s Victorian America, White delved into the finer points of blues and other American folk music; on Sentience, she goes back to one of American folk’s primary sources – old English ballads. Each song is swathed in intricate string arrangements and bolstered by accomplished fingerpicking, giving every track a lightness that keeps the album from getting overly dour. It’s a trick that works well thematically, too: as elementary school science taught us, we perceive extremely fast movement to be solid or still – fast fingerpicking can mimic stasis…or, more accurately, the sound of hovering in place, moving but remaining still. It works to greatest effect on “Black Silk,” the album’s best song, a gorgeous cautionary tale against letting your guard down when rakish dudes are afoot.
Speaking of cautionary tales about rakish dudes, this particular album is going to incur a lot of comparisons between White and Laura Marling. The comparison isn’t entirely inaccurate – both write and arrange songs that sound out-of-time, like they’d be just as accessible several centuries ago as they are at present. But unlike White, Marling’s adamant about inserting herself into situations. She demands attention, takes action, and seems fully present, whereas White acts more like a narrator, someone who’s not entirely objective, but at least distant enough from the situation to never seem fully engaged. Marling says “Let it always be known/ That I was who I am”; White’s whispering lines like “Where do I end and do I begin,” and any threats to return are tinged with remorse, not revenge.
Just as it’s dangerous for women to position themselves as both present and absent, it’s equally shaky ground for an album to do so. By virtue of the fact that there’s not much variety in the sound, it can be easy to tune out. But White is an accomplished storyteller – and stories and music both represent the best of what a ghost can be: incomplete presences, something that seems substantial in the moment but disappears in a matter of minutes, leaving only an impression in your mind.