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Artist: Sharon Van Etten

Album: Tramp

Label: Jagjaguwar

Review date: Feb. 2, 2012


Sharon Van Etten - "Serpents" (Tramp)


Sharon Van Etten’s debut, Because I Was in Love, was a work of aching purity, just a little guitar and doubled vocals to underline the luminescence of Van Etten’s voice, the plain spoken lyrics transmuted to radiance by sheer loveliness. She sounded like a long-lost 1960s icon — fragile, haunted, and not quite grounded in the real world. Her follow-up, Epic, was a larger, denser, more empowered undertaking, opening up her self-lacerating songs with layered harmonies, a full rock band and a sense of wild, against-all-odds triumph. Epic was a gigantic leap forward for Van Etten, proof that she had exploded right out of the coffee shop genre, but it shorted the transfixing vulnerability, the shuddery, silvery delicacy of the singer’s debut. With Tramp, her third, she has brought both elements together in a record that will surely be among the year’s best, a gorgeous, fully realized expression of her potential.

Van Etten’s lyrics often speak of the faithlessness of men, of destructive relationships that make her doubt herself and others, of the difficulty of committing to love when it undermines every other aspect of life. Tramp is no different in this regard, though it wraps the saddest observations in a dizzying lushness of sounds, so that you hardly notice. “Serpents,” the big, attention-grabbing single, picks obsessively at a failed connection, Van Etten’s fixation on her lost lover likened to “serpents in my mind.” And yet the song pounds and swoops and soars, a rush of positive energy in its melody dragging difficult material into the light. Later in “Leonard,” one of the album’s most striking vocal flourishes is a rising series of notes that stretches the word “Well” into multiple syllables. It’s like a warm air current, lofting upward, spreading good feeling. Only gradually do you realize that it sets off the phrase “I am bad at loving you.” There’s a real thematic darkness in the album, but it is shot through with boundlessly optimistic musical flourishes.

Van Etten worked with The National’s Aaron Dessner to record Tramp, and while there is nothing especially National-ish about it (except maybe the martial snare beat in “Serpents”), he does help her bring together disparate sounds into clear, cohesive arrangements. There are a lot of guests on this album — most of The National, Julianna Barwick, Matt Barrick from the Walkmen, Thomas Bartlett and Zach Condon, to name a few — but they never overwhelm Van Etten or push her into the background. In fact, only Condon, who duets with Van Etten in “We Are Fine” and “Magic Chords,” is immediately evident. The rest make fine, interesting contributions — I like Barwick’s earthy vocal support a lot in “Kevin’s” as well as Rob Moose’s delicate mandolin in “Leonard” — but this is Van Etten’s show, all the way through.

The lushest, densest songs are the obvious point of entry, so it’s no surprise that Van Etten has chosen “Serpents” as her first single. However, there are also some really lovely, sparse tunes that recall the singer’s acoustic beginnings. “Kevin’s” is one of the best of the quiet ones, her voice hushed and shiveringly high as she draws out the word “true” into crystalline purity. Later, in the harder, sadder, “In Line,” Van Etten hums absently to herself over slackened brushes on snares, lost in reveries about painful love affairs. Her voice shifts and flickers, now proceeding with blunt, straightforward frankness, now edging around the notes in dizzy slips and slides, now flowering suddenly into high, sweet trills and flourishes that seem more birdlike than human. She’s hard to pin down, because she can be so many kinds of singers, and this elusive-ness is part of her appeal.

Tramp is exactly what you want to see in a third album from a promising artist. It consolidates the successes of two very different preceding albums in a single, coherent statement, and hints that there’s still room for further evolution. And, more than that, it’s god-damned beautiful, a pleasure from the start that grows with repeat listens.

By Jennifer Kelly

Other Reviews of Sharon Van Etten

Because I was in Love

Epic

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