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Opinion: Sharon Van Etten’s newest work is an aural feast

  • The constantly evolving singer-songwriter expands her sound scape but leaves the heart-rending emotions intact

Van Etten live during the Austin City Limits Festival in Austin, Texas, in October. Photo: Getty Images
Van Etten live during the Austin City Limits Festival in Austin, Texas, in October. Photo: Getty Images

When Bob Dylan went electric for the first time on stage at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, he was famously booed by the audience, which had come to expect and love Dylan as a folk singer, often accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. Fans are like that sometimes—not eager to see their favourite musicians change their style or genre.

Dylan has had a legendary career since, capped by a Nobel Prize in 2017. And he has reinvented himself continuously.

Dylan’s is, indeed, an iconic example of what might happen when musicians decide to do the unexpected. David Bowie kept metamorphosing during his career, adopting alien persona such as Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, often leaving fans perplexed. A more recent example is that of guitarist Jack White, each of whose projects—the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, the Dead Weather, or his solo projects—sees him cast a different style, both for the music as well as his own image.

If you don’t count her early self-released CD-R albums or the couple of demos and remixed releases, singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten has five studio albums, the latest of which, Remind Me Tomorrow, came out mid-January. Fans who might have been turned on by her first, and quite stunning, album from 2009, Because I Was In Love, could be surprised by her new album. When Van Etten burst on the scene with her debut album, her mesmerizing vocals and the intimate, heart-rending lyrics of her songs quickly established her as a folk singer. Her songs were backed with few instruments—mainly an acoustic guitar and keyboards. In sharp contrast, on Remind Me Tomorrow, Van Etten is backed by heavy ammunition: old analogue synths, drum machines, guitars, distortion and cranked-up volumes. Her producer on the album is the celebrated John Congleton (who has worked with artists of a diverse range: St Vincent, Earl Sweatshirt, the War on Drugs, Erykah Badu and Lana Del Rey).

The sound on Remind Me Tomorrow is quite removed from the kind of music you heard on her first album. It’s experimental and draws from genres such as No Wave, punk, post-punk and classic rock ‘n’ roll. The production quality, expectedly, is exquisite and the resulting sonic-scape a rich aural feast. Still, there is one special thing that has not changed. And that is Van Etten’s vocals.

The 37-year-old Brooklynite (a transplant from suburban New Jersey) has a vocal style that lifts her intimate lyrics and lends them an aura of confidence even while she might be singing about vulnerabilities, lost love, or life’s trysts with relationships. Each of Remind Me Tomorrow’s 10 songs tell a story—stories in which the protagonist is sometimes Van Etten herself; or a throwback to a former self. On Seventeen, she looks back at when she was a teenager and free, but with a touch of sadness. On Comeback Kid, a song glistening with synth riffs, she reflects on how others see her.

It has been five years since Van Etten released her last album, Are We There, and since then there has been evolution in her life as well. She is now mother to a soon-to-be two-year-old; she is in a steady relationship; and she has spent time training to be a therapist. Such changes inflect her songs on the album. On Malibu, she sings about the mutually satisfying relationship between her and her partner; on Stay, it’s her infant child she has in mind. In a recent episode of the NPR podcast All Songs Considered, while talking about the new album, track by track, she broke down and cried while reflecting on new motherhood and her child.

Van Etten has in the past sung about broken relationships and difficult personal phases—she was homeless for a while. But even though heartbreak and emotional distress inform much of her work, her albums never seem the same. Since her debut album, she has evolved constantly as a musician—expanding her sonic range and trying new things. On Tramp (2012), which was produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner, she sings about vulnerability and emotional pain but her uplifting vocals and rumbling, garage-y music lend them self-assured confidence. Darkness and sadness tinge her songs and music even when she is in a good place—as she is apparently now (a stable relationship; a child; a soaring career)—yet Van Etten’s magnetizing vocals seem to make them immensely enjoyable.

And she’s versatile. In 2016, she collaborated with singer Perfume Genius (birth name: Mike Hadreas) on the epic Grateful Dead tribute album Day Of The Dead. They did a brilliant version of the Robert Hunter-Jerry Garcia classic To Lay Me Down. Van Etten has also acted in several episodes of the Netflix series The OA. And she has scored music for a couple of films.

Remind Me Tomorrow is her grandest studio album to date. Its music is genre-defying, and the mood of its lyrics reflective and retrospective. If you’re already a Van Etten fan, this newest evolution of the singer will be a treat. If you’re not but want to discover her music, this is a great album to start with.

The Lounge List

Five tracks by Sharon Van Etten to bookend your week

1. ‘Seventeen’ from ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’

2. ‘Comeback Kid’ from ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’

3. ‘Serpents’ from ‘Tramp’

4. ‘A Crime’ from ‘Epic’

5. ‘Consolation Prize’ from ‘Because I Was In Love’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

He tweets at @sanjoynarayan

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