Change is usually a good thing in the arts. Some artists contend they plan to move in new directions with their music and say things like, “The next album is going to be a lot more mellow,” or, “I want to get away from the ‘cutesy’ stereotype of my work.” Some artists succeed with such attempts, exhibiting more potential and color within their work; others can’t escape the confines of what initially brought them into the public eye.
And so, it is for these reasons intriguing when singer/songwriters say they’re building their music careers and they want to get past their own boundaries as solo folk artists. The press outlets sit back and watch to see if the musicians can indeed produce a bigger, possibly more mature sound.
In 2010 at Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, Illinois, Sharon Van Etten said she didn’t just want to “write sad songs,” and that she wanted to learn how to grow in her material. That winter, Van Etten released Epic, a confident album that built on her original, quiet, girl-with-a-guitar sound, and presented her as a more complex lyricist. It was the musician’s second nationally acclaimed album, drawing praise from fellow indie artists and industry executives alike.
Then last week on February 7, Van Etten released Tramp. The 12-track collection of songs is yet another positive step in the musician’s career, embodying the professional goals Van Etten set for herself not even two years ago. The album’s all-star list of musical helping hands like The National’s Dessner brothers, Julianna Barwick, Beirut’s Zach Condon, and Wye Oak’s Jen Wasner helps embellish the beauty of each track on Tramp. And while Aaron Dessner’s influence as producer of the album is clearly evident (just listen to the track “Serpents”), it is still Van Etten’s ground work of the songs that is the most impressive.
Most of the songs on Tramp have rather uncomplicated background sounds, leaving more power to Van Etten’s words and vocal strength. “I like to keep the guitar really simple so that the melody can be its own thing. It’s all based on the melody,” Van Etten explains. The musician’s vocals are purely emotional; she repeats and holds out long notes of the lyrics that bleed the most–likely why many journalists compare her with Cat Power. “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city or why I’ll need to leave,” she candidly repeats on the track “Give Out.” On the album’s single, “Serpents,” Van Etten starts with soft instrumentation, escalating into a fuller, assertive rock anthem with words like, “You enjoy sucking on dreams / So I will fall asleep with someone other than you / I had a thought you would take me seriously.”
For longtime fans of Van Etten’s who enjoy the musician’s slower ballads, the album has the songs “Kevin’s,” “In Line,” and “Joke or Lie.” The three tracks are scaled-back classic-sounding “Sharon” songs, with less instrumental action and more sultry vocals. The last track, “Joke or Lie,” ends the album with atmospheric, bitter bliss as Van Etten unfolds the emotionally burdening realities of unsure relationships with simple lyrics like “My hands are getting tired / Call it a joke or a lie.”
Contrasting with the darker tracks is the hopeful song “We Are Fine” that opens with bright ukulele strumming and melodic piano. Although the song initially seems to be a carefree tune, it is actually about the singer’s deep-rooted social anxiety. Van Etten sings the song so tenderly, trading vocals with Beirut’s Zach Condon (who also experiences society anxiety). The two join together to sing the comforting and optimistic lyrics of the chorus at the end: “Tell me not to trip or to lose sight / You are walking in my guided light / Take my hand and help me not to shake / Say I’m Alright.” It’s literally as if the two were meant to sing the song together.
Other album highlights are the diverse tracks “Magic Chords,” and “I’m Wrong.” Both songs bring musical diversity to the album; the former song opens with a drum march and a somber organ, while the latter song builds with loud horns and twinkling xylophones before it chops itself off with a sudden ending. Who knew Van Etten was capable or even interested in composing music in this way? Both songs represent Van Etten in a new light.
Tramp is a surprising mix of the loud and the soft, the negative and the optimistic; there’s a song for every kind of listener. If it’s musical “change” and “growth” that Van Etten was looking for back in 2010, she’s now got it.