Maybe because she’s got no hype, or because she isn’t at all exaggerated, or because she isn’t radically different from anything or radically modern, and she doesn’t give us any juicy headlines, Sharon Van Etten could go unnoticed as just another singer-songwriter. But she isn’t. She’s one of the truly good ones, and the time has come to call the attention to her work that it deserves.
Sharon started out in the music business working as a publicist for the Brooklyn label Ba Da Bing!, where she released her debut in 2009, but it wouldn’t be until the following year that the crucial moment in her (so far) rising career would come. We are speaking, of course, of her portentous “Epic,” a lovely album whose overwhelming expressive force, along with her growing reputation as a live performer, led her to collaborate with people like Megafaun, Beirut or Bon Iver. Sharon has had a special relationship with the last two: she worked in public relations for Zach Condon, and Justin Vernon was the one to cover “Love More” along with The National guitarist Aaron Dessner, indirectly leading the latter and our star to get to know each other. Dessner has now become her producer, her squire, and sort of her landlord, since the basement of his house in Brooklyn has been Sharon’s home and workplace for the last year. And an amazing list of collaborators have filed through there to help with this new album: Matt Barrick (The Walkmen), Thomas Bartlett (Doveman), Julianna Barwick, Jenn Wasner from Wye Oak, the aforementioned Condon, or Aaron’s brother, Bryce (who has injected some very The National blood into songs like “Serpents” and “Magic Chords” with his drum). Well, then, the royalty of Brooklyn, bringing their gifts to the new princess.
The occasion called for it. “Tramp” was called from the start to be the album to establish her, and, in a certain sense, it is. From the cover, Sharon’s limpid gaze looks straight at the listener. Her face is highly contrasted in a powerful black and white, and the expression blurred by a grainy quality underlines her resemblance to Leslie Feist, whom she resembles in her evocative ability or her folk-rock fineness, although Sharon’s pop may be more… visceral. Inside, she shows herself to be as certain and gifted as the photo suggests: she always fills the entire frame with her deep, fragile voice, calling to mind Cat Power and Karen Dalton, with an imposing presence that entirely eclipses the roster of illustrious guest stars. The mission is as somatic as it is physical: to get everything that hurts off her chest— and there is no doubt that writing works as a therapy for her. Everyone is happy, then, since listening to her exorcise and overcome the demons that haunt her is also a balsam for those who listen to her.
“Tramp” is equally as confessional and raw as her previous works. The difference is that now her testimony seems to be more of a liberation than a simple confession. It is an album with which our star overcomes the ruts of the past by accepting and singing about them. In this sense, the lyrics make it clear. Some caught just off the cuff: “There he goes, he finally closed the door" ("Leonard"); "I do all I can, but who is my man?" ("All I Do"); "You enjoy sucking on dreams, so I will fall asleep with someone other than you" ("Serpents"); "You've got to lose sometimes" ("Magic Chords"); or, simply, “Believe me, I tried,” in that dejected ending, “Joke or a Lie.” The album is packed with meta-references like this, speaking not only of her love life, but also of her professional one, as can be seen in the embroidery that she stitches over her career in the verses of “Magic Chords” or “I'm Wrong.” In the last, she declares that, "It's bad to believe in any song you sing," as if the lyrics of some previous song had come true. This type of details gives extra relief to what is sung, allowing us to feel very close to the author.
But it isn’t only the lyrics that show outstanding growth in writing, but also the sound, which although it erupts in a less volcanic, more controlled way, shows a Van Etten who has matured the ideas already put in practice in “Epic,” executing them with a praiseworthy discretion and style. In this sense, the implosive construction of the magnificent “I’m Wrong” is definitive, sort of like the absolute anticlimax of the album, before closing. Musically, the only thing that doesn’t really burst out like it could are the songs in the middle of the album (“In Line","All I Can", "We Are Fine”), songs that don’t quite make it all the way to being the great achievement that the rest of the album is: the rock embrace from a singer-songwriter perspective. A meeting of expressive levels that at times should feel more solid and compact, which should hurt more, and which sounds maybe a little dispersed, possibly due to a revealing fact: the album was recorded over the course of 14 months, the time that it took Sharon to square the agendas of all of the people involved. In any case, and without any significant ifs, ands, or buts, “Tramp” is a sweet catharsis.