Sharon Van Etten

Because I Was in Love

(Language of Stone; 2009)

By Sam Donsky | 21 April 2010

Sharon Van Etten’s voice makes one wish to know more about voices. One has the sense with a lot of quieter records that they have been deemed “voice records” by default; that the claims of transcendence often accompanying them—of the voice as a metaphor, as a transporter, as a replacement instrument—have not seriously been thought through. That is to say these claims bear the logic of placeholders, excuses: for the simpler (yet harder-to-cohere) notion that a sound is often only hushed for its own sake; that a record is usually quiet just so as not to be loud.

I don’t begrudge anyone a compliment, but the shame here is obviously one of dilution: play fast’n’loose with an adjective for long enough and there get to be a lot of “transcendent” voices. You know how the story goes. Inflation stunts purchasing power causes market meltdown leads to recession ends in me listening to a lot of, I don’t know, Cat Power. At which point, as defenses for waiting ten months to write about Sharon Van Etten go, this becomes mine: it seemed like another one of Those Records.

It’s really not. One of those records, I mean. Because I Was in Love is an imperfect but ultimately stunning debut, eleven songs routed through a voice that is the furthest thing from the next of a kind. With a tunefulness too lavish for folk and a posture too upright for bedroom pop, it nestles instead somewhere right in between—a soluble, unbuttoned mixture of melody and narrative and acoustic guitar. The narrative, for the most part, is one of surrender to heartache. “I wish I knew what to do with you / But the truth is I ain’t got a clue / Do you?” begins opener “I Wish I Knew,” and it is a line emblematic of Van Etten’s principle tack: to present her experiences through the direct address of some opposite number—an unidentified “you” with whom she has gone through the romantic wringer.

Because I Was in Love operates largely in this past tense but really only in name: presenting its scar tissue in a way that is both immediate and well preserved. “I came to you, my conscience clean, / Blood on my knees,” she explains in the opening lament of “Consolation Prize,” and this seems a fair approximate of her condition for most of the record. It is not a sad story, per se, but it is a rock-bottom one, navigated outwardly from Van Etten’s abstract nadir. The degree of difficulty this choice presents is significant; the line between grief and straight-drag is one that must be measured with care. Van Etten has care in spades, thankfully, and though deeply personal her songs do not feel the least bit indulged.

Much of this, of course, can be credited to her vocals, which establish ownership of her writing even at its most perilously solemn. It is a credit of some importance; the record’s last third in particular threatens to capsize in a sea of intermediate poetry. It never does, though. Van Etten’s performance is simply far too skillful and much too sincere. It is a sincerity with a weight that comes from well beyond “meaning it”—one that gestures toward the presence of something approaching unique. Hers is a warm but exhausted, wondrous but devastating voice. In a word, it transcends.

I should reiterate that most of the songs here need no such savior. “Tornado” is perfect, momentum-gathering Pacific-folk. “For You” is a confrontation with blues formalism that goes astonishingly well. “It’s Not Like” is the record’s best melody, an almost-pop song of a dozen or so lifts whose sonic locus, no offense, is a step up from Brooklyn. “Much More Than That” might be the song of the year. This is a collection on which favorites are not hard to find.

Because I Was in Love is “fully formed” in the way one only half-means it—in the way one assumes or at least hopes that its maker is not. Van Etten will probably make better records than this, but on the sliding scale of debuts her company is already rare. “Take both my hands,” she instructs on “It’s Not Like”—“Tie them behind my back / To keep me from holding from holding from holding…” and for a second it fades out. At some point it must. At some point everything reveals its independent phase. Here it is an arrival at the long-sought present tense. It is a certain awareness at a particular speed; a pose of satisfaction at the edge of demise for which, after a record like this, one can’t fairly blame her.