Tramp is not the first release of Sharon Van Etten’s career, but the album does mark an entirely new phase in her budding catalog. It is her first album with Jagjaguwar; it features members of Beirut, the Walkmen, and the National either guesting or on production duties (indie royalty, indeed); and it is quite clearly the work of a bigger budget and a larger scope. Yet at no point does the album’s occasionally widescreen production obscure the fact that this a highly personal and powerful work, one from a young Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter with a distinctive voice.
It is hardly a stretch to say that a post-heartbreak album from a musician who uses the guitar as her primary instrument is not exactly the most original sell, so it is to Van Etten’s credit that she does such a thorough job of making the music sound fresh and finding new ways to say things we’ve all heard and felt before. Lyrically the album is succinct and direct (that stark photo on the album cover is perfectly apt), and Van Etten’s delivery is all quiet power without ever having to resort to bombast. “All I Can” features the album’s most epic moment, a slow build towards a big climax that is surprisingly reminiscent of the likes of Coldplay, but it is actually one of the weaker moments on the album as well. It is in Tramp’s leaner, quieter moments that Van Etten’s music hits hardest.
When Van Etten sings “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city / Or why I’ll have to leave” on the intense “Give Out,” the use of the future tense acts as a warning as well as a sad refrain. She shows remarkable control over the emotional intensity that the album manages to maintain without ever becoming exhausting. If that song is the sound of sadness and resignation, “Serpents” is the sound of an angry young woman. Again, that voice is the key, as the song’s ghostly harmonies work both in tandem with and in contrast to the pounding drums in the background. Van Etten understands how to portray all the emotions of a break-up–the regret, the frustration, and the sense of powerlessness that accompanies that most familiar of human experiences–without ever resorting to melodrama.
That’s not to say this is an album that wallows. The Tramp is frequently lovely, with Van Etten finding a middle ground between folk and country to deliver some memorable melodies. “Kevin’s” may be melancholy, but it also has a lilting waltz rhythm at its core. “Leonard” opens with the line “There he goes / He finally closed the door,” but Van Etten makes the melody soar, and the song contains one of the album’s best arrangements, all feathery drums and arpeggio guitar. The album closer, “Joke Or A Lie,” is the sound of pre-sleep exhaustion, and its free-form construction and absence of percussion leaves almost nothing to listen to but the sound of Van Etten herself, singing in that sad, lovely near-mumble one final time. The last words she sings, crushingly, are “Believe me, I tried.”
It takes a rare talent to make this kind of thing sound new, but Sharon Van Etten is that rare talent. The stakes are higher this time, the crossover potential clearly stronger, and she has risen to the challenge with an album that sounds both universally appealing and extremely personal. The recent crossover success of some of her peers suggests the audience is there for her. Let’s hope they are listening.
Click below to hear a stunning live recording of “Give Out”:
For more on Sharon Van Etten, including details of her upcoming Los Angeles show, visit her website.