Anna Burch’s 2018 debut Quit the Curse made plenty clear that she has a feel for pop songcraft. It was largely a straightforward album with jangly guitars and droll lyrics, and while Burch didn’t bludgeon you with hooks, her melodies tended to sneak in and set up shop all the same. That holds true on the follow-up, though the dozen songs on If You’re Dreaming aren’t as straightforward as they sound at first.
Jangly guitars remain abundant, but they’re less of a focal point than a starting point on songs that are less single-minded, with softer edges and a dreamier tone. Burch leaves more room for texture on If You’re Dreaming, a conscious decision that grew out of feelings of transience and disconnection she experienced while spending so much time on tour after releasing Quit the Curse. She diluted the harried feel of life on the road with an intentional, considered writing process that involved as much reflection as exploration while she experimented with structure, sound and words. It shows in the songs, which have a light touch on weighty themes: there’s a lot here about feeling aimless and untethered, though Burch generally sings her observational lyrics in a calm, unruffled way that sometimes borders on serene.
The contrast is compelling as she unearths a sense of aggrievement that she pairs with an airy wordless chorus and a gently chugging guitar riff on opener “Can’t Sleep,” or vents a restless discontent on “Go It Alone.” Burch’s voice on the latter is soft, but a little steely, and she sings with a sense of self-possession as glissandos of slippery guitar slide around her vocals. For all the peevishness and yearning she expresses on If You’re Dreaming, spending so much time thinking through these songs seems to have given Burch some life perspective, too. She might be making a peace offering on “Not So Bad” when she acknowledges a tendency to see things in the worst light—“What is this instinct to hate on everything? / Seems it’s in me badly, I’m afraid,” she sings—and credits the presence of a now-absent significant other for making her a better person.
If her point of view became clearer on “Not So Bad,” it got cloudier on “Tell Me What Is True” after she (or her narrator) stopped seeing everything through the distorting prism of self-loathing. Burch sings with breezy clarity over low-key electric piano, and the effect borders on torch-song territory, with wandering bemusement in place of slow-burning ardor. She occasionally veers a little too far toward understatement, with sleepy vocals verging on somnolent on “Every Feeling” as the song sways through its four-and-a-half-minute running time without really going anywhere. It’s an outlier on If You’re Dreaming, which at its core is a quiet plum of an album by a singer and songwriter whose growing self-assurance shows through loud and clear.
Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013, and writing about music and pop culture for longer than he cares to admit. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.