Review: Sharon Van Etten — “Tramp”

Sharon Van Etten gets angry on her excellent third album.

by Tony


Artist: Sharon Van Etten

Album: Tramp

Label: Jagjaguwar

In her little-heard debut âÄúBecause I Was In Love,âÄù Sharon Van Etten introduced herself at her most vulnerable. She cooed over acoustic guitar and lamented, âÄúOne day, IâÄôll be a better writer.âÄù In her sophomore offering, âÄúEpic,âÄù she returned with her teeth clenched and solidified her fiery but pained folk sound.

âÄúTramp,âÄù Van EttenâÄôs third full-length and first for record label Jagjaguwar, continues this trajectory with forays into rock and a well-deserved expansion in scope.

âÄúTrampâÄù was produced by the NationalâÄôs Aaron Dessner and features a rotating cast of indie rockers from Van EttenâÄôs wheelhouse, which includes Julianna Barwick, Zach Condon (Beirut), Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak) and Matt Barrick (The Walkmen). This collaboration has done wonders for Van EttenâÄôs already sharp songwriting, expanding her sound to include synthesizers, organs and electric guitars that she only hinted at in âÄúEpicâÄù.

Van Etten is not only more confident, sheâÄôs angry. Her voice isstrong above the jagged guitars in âÄúWarsawâÄù, and she seems comfortable shredding in lead single âÄúSerpentsâÄù. BarrickâÄôs propulsive drumming rouses Van Etten into a fury, and the rougher instrumentation reveals a new dimension to Van EttenâÄôs music: scorn.

But âÄúSerpentsâÄùâÄô near-anthemic chorus doesnâÄôt get lodged in your head quite like her more pained moments do. The chorus to the highlight of the album, âÄúGive OutâÄù âÄî âÄúYouâÄôre the reason why IâÄôll move to the city / or why IâÄôll need to leaveâÄù âÄî is sweeping, wounded and frank in a way that only Van Etten can pull off.

Van EttenâÄôs lyrics are just as confession-filled as theyâÄôve been since the beginning, but theyâÄôre also just as raw, and âÄúTrampâÄù doesnâÄôt become repetitive. Her angst has also grown more nuanced. Mid-album track âÄúWe Are FineâÄù seems, at first, like an uncharacteristic glimmer of joy: âÄúEverything is real/Nothing left to steal/âÄôCause weâÄôre all right/IâÄôm all rightâÄù she sings. But by the end of the song, it seems that Van Etten is only trying to convince herself, and the clouds roll back in.

âÄúTrampâÄùâÄôs second half runs together more than the first, but standout tracks eventually reveal themselves. âÄúIâÄôm WrongâÄù begins with simple guitars and anxious isolation. It swells and blossoms through its four minutes into a desperate cry for reassurance, awash in bells and distorted guitar drone. Hurt and beautiful, it represents Van Etten at the top of her game.

Not all of the albumâÄôs quieter moments are as arresting. âÄúIn LineâÄù is a little too echoey and shapeless, and the closing track âÄúJoke or a LieâÄù evaporates instead of giving âÄúTrampâÄù the strong ending it deserves.

With âÄúTramp,âÄù Sharon Van Etten has delivered the yearâÄôs first âÄúbest ofâÄù contender. ItâÄôs a full-bodied work that adds depth and confidence to Van EttenâÄôs sound. SheâÄôs no longer bruised with eyes downcast. Van Etten is ready to fight back and all the better for it.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4