The sophomore slump is a generally overused concept, often invoked by critics to knock down acts who hadn’t done anything worthwhile in the first place. There are also more banal forms of failure, and an artist’s second album does have significance as the place where patterns first form, where tics become solidified, and nagging faults become serious problems. There are a lot of ways to stumble on your second outing, and Emily Jane White’s method, retreading a sound that was already too little her own, is perhaps the most common.
Like 2007’s Dark Undercoat, Victorian America is an immaculately dusky exploration of Americana tropes, full of beautifully hushed vocals, dark and slithery subject matter, and the aching echo of slide guitar. As before, the whispery splendor of White’s voice elevates the material, but it’s troubling how similar the two albums are in tone and overall sound. Songs like the title track do break from the mold by varying White’s now-standard vocal pattern, but their core elements and overall feel are largely the same.
What the album achieves is further identifying the limited scope of her sound, which deals with such a specific stylistic palette as to have already been limited in the first place. And though the production is sterling and the material plied with completely convincing earnestness, its repetition is far too boring in a genre that’s already crowded with this kind of thing.
This means that there’s a fully predictable slant to a song like “Liza,” which hits all the right notes, from whispers of trembling violin to a creeping buildup, amplified by crackling guitar swooshes that swoop in at just the right moments. The creaking progression feels like the slow ascent of a small roller coaster at a local carnival: We know where this is heading, how it will end up, and that it won’t be terribly exciting. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t some modest pleasure in riding them: There’s a measure of sustained dreariness in the middling fulfillment of low expectations.