My introduction to Sharon Van Etten – and I’m sure I’m not the only one who found her this way – was through The Antlers’ Hospice. I just had to know whose haunting voice that was singing at the end of “Thirteen,” and so I discovered her debut album, Because I Was In Love, a collection of songs full of the heartbreaking vulnerability that her Hospice guest spot had promised. Next came Epic, which showed Van Etten gaining a lot of confidence both in her songwriting and herself as a person, but that inner turmoil was still evident all over the album, particularly on the unassailable “Love More.” Now we have Tramp, by far Van Etten’s most ambitious outing to date. She’s drafted in several recognizable guests, but the biggest change comes from getting the High Violet treatment from The National’s Aaron Dessner, who is at the producing helm.
Considering Van Etten’s tendency towards the melodramatic and Dessner’s propensity for grand-sounding music, you might expect Tramp to be full of sweeping string sections designed to blatantly manipulate your emotions, but they have smartly decided to move in a different direction. Instead they’ve put together a more muscular sound; the anxiety and self-doubt are still rife in the lyrics, but by adding double-tracked vocals and beefing up Van Etten’s electric guitar the songs wield more of a musical punch. This has the most effect in a song like “Serpents,” where Van Etten claims that she has “serpents in [her] mind” and that someone “enjoys sucking on dreams,” – these lines sound particularly venomous attached to the driving straight-up rock backing.
Expand this formula over the course of twelve tracks and 47 minutes and we’re left with a heavy album, emotionally. In the dreamy, oozing “In Line,” guitars and vocals rise and fall dramatically as Sharon speaks of her regrets about her past naiveté in love; in the stunning twinkling drone of “I’m Wrong” she tries to deny the truth in an attempt to grasp at happiness; and in “All I Can” the desire for love is so bad that “the sun is at stake.” When the chorus of “Magic Chords” intones repeatedly “you’ve got to lose sometimes,” it seems like an understatement – Sharon seems to be losing every time. I’m painting a dreary picture, but in listening to the album you’ll discover the beauty in all of these somber songs and the words are all of a sudden transformed from plain misery to a cinematic melancholia that you’ll be swept up in. The weight of the album gets a needed lift when the strategically placed “We Are Fine” comes on around the middle. The song features a guest vocal spot from Beirut’s Zach Condon, who can conjure a calming atmosphere with every word sung on his wine-soaked breath.
Sharon Van Etten has always seemed like an impressionable person, so there was a slight danger with this record that she would have let the bigger names take over and do what they do best. Fortunately, this has not happened, and instead Sharon has taken advantage of the extra expertise on offer and made the “step up” that she aims for between each album – and it’s quite a big one. Sure, at times it feels like the words would have more impact if they were sung purely backed by a simply-plucked acoustic guitar, but that doesn’t make them any less honest. The girl from Because I Was In Love is still present here (just listen to the way she admits “you’re the reason why I’ll move to the city” on “Give Out”), so any claims that this is her “mature” or “grown up” are not strictly correct; Tramp is simply her most fully-realized album yet, and that’s all there is to it.