Sharon Van Etten
By Christopher Alexander | 14 February 2012
The nice, beautiful lie at the center of all creative experience is that your quotidian existence is rendered historical and tragic by the sheer depth of your feeling. It matters even less than how good you are at it. You don’t even need three chords and the truth. The very fire in your belly is all it takes to burn your ex-lover down. This is the not-so-secret appeal of the confessional singer-songwriter and the stark, alone-in-the-room records they often make. The records aren’t carried by craftsmanship, skill, or even a barbed lyrical kiss-off; it’s a chance to hear, shorn of any jiggery-pokery, people coming alive, or destroying themselves, or destroying and breathing to life all that they know. Their souls are the featured musical instrument.
It’s a harder myth to burst when Sharon Van Etten still makes records. There are better singers and songwriters making the rounds, but few can sell those ineffable feelings of loneliness, heartbreak, and enervation on tape as well as her. No wonder Cat Power keeps coming up as an easy point of reference—her wounded, contralto croak sounds as natural to soar into a breathtaking wordless moan as it does in collapsing on itself. It makes you believe, which after fifty years of folk purity and a decade or so of indie rock car commercials is no small thing. Van Etten’s two excellent previous records hewed close (though not religiously) to the one woman and her soul in a room mold, and they felt expansive and cinematic rather than insular and depressive. The room, it seemed, was another featured instrument.
Tramp is a much bigger production, recorded over a period of several months and with a who’s who of guests and collaborators. Producer Aaron Dessner provides many of the same tricks he does for his own superstar band the National, but it proves a surprisingly good fit for Van Etten. All pedal points, hall reverbs, and anguished guitar bends, the sonic template of Tramp fits right in with her trademark wails and somnambulant, leaning shuffles. Van Etten still relies on half and whole notes, and is no belter behind the microphone. The result is that occasionally the words, a primary focus on her two records, get lost as just another instrument in the gauze. This is not really a bad thing, though, because the album now sounds as emotional and shimmery as her songs once felt.
The songs make good use of this production, too. The spare, graveyard waltz of “Kevin’s” is devastating as a sound-event, a massive amount of space covered in just four chords and a boom-thwack drum beat. Advance single “Serpents” is a fine jump into uptempo, angry indie rock, propelled as it is by a metronomic dance-punk beat that would have screamed the Walkmen even if it weren’t performed by that band’s Matt Barrick. “All I Can” is a major set piece, beginning with a single guitar that rolls naturally into an explosive fanfare of horns and chorales. “We Are Fine” begs for the verse Zach Condon sings for it, though “Leonard” borrows a lot of tropes from Beirut as well, suggesting its choppy rhythm and funeral/carnival sensation minus the horns and ukuleles. Album closers “I’m Wrong” and “Joke or a Lie” sound like the best Low songs Mimi Parker never wrote; naturally Jenn Wasner’s fingerprints are all over them.
It’s a shame, then, that the album is so oddly paced. “Warsaw,” while not an outright clunker (there are none here), is far too circular and insular to begin any album. It comes off like an unfinished idea, not helped by the fact of its brief run-time. The album fails to pick up steam as a result, even after “Give Out,” one of her finest songs and the teeming “Serpents.” Side two, beginning with “All I Can,” hangs together better, but the finale would have worked better spread out. In truth, Tramp, owing to its peripatetic construction, is a transitional album, full of new ideas and feelings. “Give Out,” containing the oft-quoted “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city / Or why I’ll need to leave,” is a rumination of why her love seldom works out, rather than a list of beautiful self-damage; “Leonard” is even a startling confession that maybe she has some growing up to do as well, with its “I’m bad at loving you” refrain; the album’s penultimate song, “I’m Wrong,” begs her lover to tell her that the things about herself she knows to be true aren’t—she sings them in such a way that even this salve of love will not last.
Tramp is presently enjoying the kind of full-court press usually reserved for her far more famous collaborators. It falls on the critic to report that it’s not quite the break-out landmark that has been advertised. Still, the album is lovely, and Van Etten enjoys the wider audience it will surely bring her. This is, after all, soul music for collegiate white people—a hundred expressions in a single sigh, it simply, like her two (arguably better) albums before them, hurts too good to be ignored. Her pain and sadness may not be more painful and sad than yours, but I’d be willing to wager money that yours wouldn’t sound as beautiful.