Vulnerability and intimacy are key elements of a singer-songwriter’s repertoire, qualities that typically translate better with smaller arrangements and a more direct connection to the listener. That certainly holds true for New Jersey’s Sharon Van Etten, a performer whose first two albums were marked not only by quiet folk-ballad arrangements, but by frank reflections on heartbreak and relationships. She offers a familiar, warm and open-hearted type of confessional songwriting, delivered through a voice that’s hushed but strong, sometimes crushing in its honesty, but always with a sweetness and comforting humanity.
In the lead-up to Van Etten’s third album, Tramp, she spent 14 months without permanent residence, crashing with friends and keeping her possessions in storage. It gives the title a blunt accuracy, but despite the chaos and uncertainty in her life at the time, her first full-length for Jagjaguwar is a remarkably solid and focused effort. Recorded and produced by The National’s Bryce Dessner, these 12 songs find Van Etten backed by bigger and louder arrangements than usual, as if to represent a kind of armor built up over old wounds and emitting a confidence that has always been there, but never quite so radiant.
Tramp is a rich-sounding album, for the first time sounding like the work of a full band rather than a sole performer. Her supporting cast goes a long way toward accomplishing this richness and versatility, with the likes of Dessner, Juliana Barwick, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, Doveman’s Thomas Bartlett, Beirut’s Zach Condon and The Walkmen’s Matt Barrick lending their talents to various tracks throughout. With the brief, yet subtly infectious opening track “Warsaw,” Van Etten immediately delves into a jangly, electric sound, powerful, but still leaving much to be revealed in the songs to come. And what she does reveal comprises some surprising and breathtaking new signs of growth and versatility, from the lush chamber pop waltz “Leonard,” to the darkly haunting dirge “In Line,” and new single “Serpents,” which shows Van Etten soaring into a satisfyingly noisy rock song.
These reinforcements serve not to offset Van Etten’s confessional lyrics, however, but to complement them. The fierceness of “Serpents” pairs wonderfully with Van Etten’s bitter cries, her anger coming up to the surface in lines like “I had thought you would take me seriously” and “Everybody changes in time/ I hope he changes this time.” She turns the mirror back on herself on “Leonard,” musing “I turn the lock feeling more/ confused than before” only to declare, during a curiously celebratory swell, “well well, I’m bad.” Yet, simplicity is still sometimes the best approach, the acoustic strums of “Give Out” providing a suitably gentle nest for conflicted and uncertain expressions like “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city/ you’re the reason I need to leave.”
Much of Tramp serves to suggest that some of Van Etten’s scars have healing left to do, but the confidence she transmits leaves one to assume that they’re on their way. But this isn’t a ritual bloodletting, or a voyeuristic listen into someone’s personal diaries as they are personal meditations from a familiar and comforting voice. As catharsis, the songs on Tramp may very well be exactly the kind of therapy to which Van Etten has often alluded in interviews, but for the sake of artistic accomplishment, they rank as some of her best.
Stream: Sharon Van Etten – “Serpents”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.