The first time I saw and heard Sharon Van Etten was at the 2010 Pitchfork Music Festival, in which she had the “honor” of being the first artist to perform that year. The issue of course is that at 3PM on a Friday afternoon, most attendees were either still at work or simply hadn’t made their way past the front gates yet. In other words, it made for one of the most sparsely attended sets of the weekend. Those that were there in time though were treated to one of the most endearing sets of the 3-day fest and a proper introduction to a major new singer-songwriter talent. Her first proper album Epic had not yet been released, and she had no backing band, so the reality of it was one woman playing a bunch of songs nobody had heard before to a crowd of about 100 people. And you know what? You could barely hear a sound other than what was coming out of the speakers. That’s not because they were loud, but because everyone was quiet and attentive and completely taken in by a truly lone wolf performance. In the middle of it, one of the strings on her guitar broke, and she didn’t have a replacement, so Modest Mouse (headlining that night) lent her one of theirs. Effortlessly charming was a good way to describe it, and in some ways that set suggested the birth of a star. Epic would go on to critical praise and moderate success, and Van Etten made a whole lot of important friends thanks in no small part to incessant touring.
The National’s Aaron Dessner was one of Sharon Van Etten’s earliest supporters, and was so swayed by the Epic track “Love More” that he performed a cover of it at the 2010 MusicNow Festival with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. That developed into a friendship and a working collaboration, as Dessner produced Van Etten’s new record Tramp. The recording sessions were sporadic over a year, scheduled between touring responsibilities for the both of them. Van Etten also found herself courted by a record label or two, eventually choosing to sign with indie superlabel Jagjaguwar, which is a strong match to her style of music and increased visibility. She chose to title her new album Tramp as a comment on the transient lifestyle she’s been leading the last couple years. Touring is one aspect of it, but she’s also not had a permanent residence in awhile, instead bouncing from couch to couch, friend to friend and sublet to sublet when she needs to stay anywhere for longer than a day or two. As she puts it, the decision ultimately came down to either paying rent on an apartment, or keeping her backing band. Things have been better in recent months however, and she’s been able to find a place in Brooklyn to call home even as she prepares to hit the road for another few months of touring in support of the album.
Things are also getting better on record as well, as Tramp sees Van Etten truly growing out her voice and overall sound into a much stronger and more collaborative effort overall. For the first time, she truly sounds comfortable in her own skin, as if she just needed the right people around her to get all the pieces perfectly in place. She’s been building towards such a sonic revelation across her previous two releases, and now that she’s finally reached that healthy place seems more determined than ever to make it count for something. Opening track “Warsaw” holds a remarkably dark bounce to it, the main electric guitar chords bearing a surprisingly strong resemblance to some of the more angular approaches used by Nirvana in reworking some of their songs for the Unplugged record. Perhaps the song that best echoes Van Etten’s growth is first single “Serpents”, which is a beast of a composition that intertwines multiple guitar parts, militaristic drumming from Matt Barrick of The Walkmen, and full-on overdubbed vocal harmonies. It’s beautiful and sad, but has serious muscle to it, a display of aggression that was only been hinted at up until that point. Not everything on the album is so intricately constructed and energetic though. The balladry of “Kevin’s” comes soberingly close to the sparse solo guitar and vocal of Van Etten’s earlier material, as does the late album drama of “Ask”. Other songs like “All I Can” and “I’m Wrong” take a more subtle approach and build steadily over their duration. The bright energy and use of ukulele on “Leonard” brings a decidedly Beirut-esque feel to the track, and it’s almost a disappointment when a horn section doesn’t emerge to buttress the melody. But speaking of Beirut, Zach Condon does make a guest appearance on the equally ukulele driven “We Are Fine”, a song about overcoming social anxiety. The track’s positive message is that much more engaging and beautiful thanks to Condon’s backing harmonies and solo vocal on a verse. Additional contributions come from Julianna Barwick and Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, among others, and each does a superb job whether you notice their presence or not.
At the core of Tramp are Van Etten’s lyrics, the topics of which haven’t really changed much since her earliest days. Romance tends to be her favorite vice, and the highs and mostly lows of relationships is something she continues to explore. On “Give Out” she bluntly sings, “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city/or why I’ll need to leave.” Yet sometimes she takes the blame for a failed relationship herself, as on “Leonard” when she musters up the courage to say, “I am bad at loving you.” One thing you’re almost guaranteed with any Sharon Van Etten record is that she’ll be very frank and up front about her thoughts and emotions. It’s just nice at times to not have to wade through symbols and extraneous wordplay while trying to decipher the songwriter’s true intentions. And Sad though many of the sentiments might be, often made sadder by the heartbreak evident in Van Etten’s voice, this album isn’t about the destruction of relationships. It’s actually about the lessons we learn in the aftermath of those tragic moments. “I want my scars to help and heal,” she confesses on “All I Can”, the implication being that the wounds of past loves will hopefully assist in finding someone new and better. Couple that with a song like “We Are Fine” and the theme becomes moving on and forward. Funny, because Van Etten is not only doing that lyrically but sonically as well, and the combination makes for her finest record to date. She’s come quite a long way from just a couple years ago playing unreleased music all alone on a festival stage. To say she’s earned the success that continues to come her way would be quite an understatement.