SHARON VAN ETTEN – ” The Albums “

Posted: May 15, 2022 in Classic Albums, MUSIC
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Sharon Van Etten contemplates life and love and the accompanying kaleidoscope of emotions.” Throughout her discography, consisting of six sublime studio albums, the singer/songwriter has consistently merged the dark and the dazzling, proving herself to be one of the best lyricists of the 2010s.

This Spring Sharon Van Etten released “We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong“, her sixth and most instrumentally diverse record in a storied 13-year career. Before releasing her debut, “Because I Was in Love“, in 2009, and forging a blueprint of heavy, sometimes sparse, emotional upheavals, Van Etten worked as a publicist for Ba Da Bing Records and sold handmade, self-released CDs. Now, a half-dozen LPs and more than a decade later, Van Etten has never been side-lined by formulaic exhaustion each of her projects tap into similar emotional headspaces, but never flirt with redundancy. She’s enigmatic and self-aware; graceful and humorous understanding of what weight a song can hold, what reactions restraint can provoke.

Van Etten’s journey to where she is now has been a slow burn, as she’s patiently amassed a discography that’s always remaking itself sonically. Each record has built an empire out of the one predating it, and Van Etten’s work has become a cornerstone in indie rock through consistency, experimentation and brilliance—and her collaborations with Josh Homme, Norah Jones and Angel Olsen, among others, showcase her adaptability, how she can so comfortably fit into any song with anyone. (She’s even linking up with Julien Baker and reuniting with Olsen for the powerhouse Wild Hearts Tour this summer.)

As the Brooklyn singer/songwriter celebrates “We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong“, another triumphant document of romance, pitfalls and joys, in a discography patented by it, is highlighting each project’s acclaim. Below we look at all six Sharon Van Etten albums, which range from gentle acts of anti-romantic balladry to powerful declarations of hard-earned healing.

Because I Was in Love (2009)

Van Etten’s debut chronicles the balance between disaster and joy in love, exploring the improbability of easy, happy endings. It’s not as instrumentally rich as her subsequent records, but there’s a raw power that beautifully upends our perceptions of the bounds a singer/songwriter project has to abide by. The place of intimacy from which Van Etten has worked is always palpable and addicting, and “Because I Was in Love” exists as proof.

Sharon Van Etten’s first recordings are among her most delicate. “Consolation Prize,” the second song on her debut “Because I Was In Love” is a spare and beautiful venture in plucking. The narrator of this tune doesn’t want to be someone’s last choice, or even their second. “The moral of the story / is don’t walk away again,” Van Etten warns. “No, I’ll never be your consolation prize.”

“For You” is still a standout in her catalogue, with that intoxicating “I was running home to you / I was hoping that you knew” melody; “I Wish I Knew” remains her most triumphant opener, as she immediately leans into the vulnerable song writing she’s made her blueprint. “I wish I knew what to do with you,” she sings on the track, capturing the gist of the entire record: a tender, brilliant testament to love’s greatest confusions.

Epic (2010)

With her second album, “Epic”, Van Etten perfectly built off her debut effort in a concise way, adding depth and rich textures to a shaped voice and daring, outspoken lyrics in just seven tracks. What sets her apart from many contemporaries is how she chooses to open herself up, as she chronicles second-person interactions with a memorable eye for self-analysis. “Don’t leave me now, you might love me back,” she sings on “One Day,” her best pre-“Tramp” tune.

On this track from 2010’s “epic”, Van Etten is all of a sudden an emboldened troubadour, chasing the sounds of an adventure. She starts the song unsure: “I was somewhat afraid / I was something.” But, after a too-short couple of minutes of bouncing drum and choral backing vocals, she’s awake and self-assured: “When I woke up I was already me / And I am not afraid / I am something.”

Sharon Van Etten is a master slow-burner, and “Love More,” the album kicker from “epic“, is a particularly beautiful shedding of the wax. Her retelling of an emotionally abusive relationship, and a way of coping with the aftermath of it, is sad but cathartic.

The synth-driven closing track “Love More” got a lot of attention because Bon Iver covered it, but, on its own, is one of Van Etten’s most affecting codas. (“You chained me like a dog in our room / It made me love, it made me love, it made me love more” is still a heater of a lyric couplet.) When “Because I Was in Love” arrived in our hearts in 2009, Van Etten was drawing comparisons to Marissa Nadler and Norah Jones (with whom she would later collaborate); by the time she wrote “Epic” a year later, she’d surpassed both of them completely.

Tramp (2012)

She pivoted to Jagjaguwar for her next album, “Tramp”, and has remained at the label since. But in the years since 2014, when that fourth record, “Are We There” arrived, something happened. Actually, a lot of things happened: Van Etten started a romantic relationship with her once-drummer and now-partner Zeke Hutchins, went back to school at Brooklyn College, secured a recurring role on the Netflix show The OA and had a baby—in that order. 

It takes some courage to admit “I am bad at loving.” Using clever rhymes (“Well, well, hell”) and folksy acoustic guitar, Van Etten looks back on a soured relationship and shares the blame for its demise. The track, which Van Etten says was inspired by Leonard Cohen (and also the “Kevin” who’s referenced on the preceding track) is one of the best on “Tramp“.

Produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner, “Tramp” is Van Etten’s most forward creation, littered with angry ballads of isolation and mistrust. The production of this record is plucky and visceral, an industrial precursor of the detouring, harmonious leap she would make, instrumentally, on “Are We There” two years later. When she goes up a register on the scoffing, jangly “Warsaw,” in come stark, clamorous echoes of that familiar heartache Van Etten has consistently plucked from her own emotional repertoire. But the shining parts of “Tramp” arrive when she comes back around and tilts the spotlight away from herself.

Love is torture. What do you do when a relationship is clearly toxic, but the feelings are so strong, so all-consuming? In the case of this song’s narrator, you freeze. Van Etten said writing the song was her “therapy.” But it might be useful for more than just herself: The signs of an unhealthy relationship (“Break my legs so I won’t walk to you / Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you / Burn my skin so I can’t feel you”) show themselves in varying ways, and Van Etten’s assessment is a look at the very worst. But it’s a song that moves and stirs, drawing more empathy out of me than I knew was possible from an anti-love song.

On “Kevin’s,” she strains her voice while singing of someone else’s self-destruction, lamenting, “You dig your own grave / Buried in masculine pain all the time”; on “We Are Fine,” she helps a friend out of a panic attack.

During “Serpents,” the album’s lead single and Van Etten’s most eruptive and punishing track, she pleads for the simple act of consideration, belting, “I had a thought you would take me seriously,” before the memorable, racing choral breakdown. 

Above it all, “Tramp” is about healing, both individually and in relationships. “I want my scars to help and heal,” she sings on “All I Can.” On the two previous records, Van Etten sang of a world stopped while the pain came rushing in; on “Tramp“, she decided to keep moving forward through the crumbling.

Are We There (2014)

Are We There” showcases what we’ve come to love about Van Etten: The New Yorker is self-possessed in the most beautiful ways. This record came into the peripherals of many listeners by way of Twin Peaks: The Return, when Van Etten performed “Tarifa” at the Bang Bang Bar at the end of episode six. Beyond that cameo, “Tarifa” is Van Etten’s prettiest song, sandwiched between the intoxicating, electronic “Our Love” and the nervous, stark “I Love You But I’m Lost.”

The heart of “Are We There” is its finale, “Every Time the Sun Comes Up,” which endures as a declaration of the record’s anti-romantic ethos. “People say I’m a one-hit wonder / But what happens when I have two?” she sings on the track, before obliterating the song’s anonymous subject with the “I washed your dishes, but I shit in your bathroom” line. “Are We There” is a bridge between “Tramp” and “Remind Me Tomorrow”; an immense follow-up to the former and a bold, gentle predecessor to the latter.

While she’s spent plenty of time studying despair, Sharon Van Etten knows her way around a love song—a real one, with butterflies aplenty and googly, awestruck eyes for days. “Our Love” sort of straddles love’s light and dark sides. The chorus, just a repeated crooning of “it’s our love” and “in our love” and, eventually, “it’s all love” exists in the light side. The verses, however, are more uncertain. The droning drum loop lopes along as twangy, sorrowful guitar lulls you into a trance, leaving the listener with the responsibility of deciding whether or not this song has a happy ending. One thing’s for sure, though, someone rescued her from the bottom of the “well,” making everything else worth it.

How we approach that banality of everyday life, however, is up to us. Van Etten has said “Every Time the Sun Comes Up,” a brooding and funny take on the humdrum, started as a joke, just the product of some late-night silliness with her bandmates, but that doesn’t make it any less smart. It’s both a look at burdernous rituals and some kind of deeply personal anecdote, but Van Etten makes them feel like one in the same. It’s a song about nothing and everything—and also weed (“People say I’m a one hit wonder / But what happens when I have two?”). Or—wait—was she actually referring to her well-performing singles? The great thing about Sharon Van Etten is that we’ll never need to know.

Remind Me Tomorrow (2019)

“Remind Me Tomorrow” careens from the almost-galloping pace of songs like “Comeback Kid” or the third-verse howl of single Seventeen, to more restrained and almost crooning tracks like “Malibu” or “I Told You Everything“.

The three singles ahead of the album—”Comeback Kid,” “Jupiter” and “Seventeen”—are intense and grandiose in a way we haven’t seen before from Van Etten. She’s working with a new toolbox, using more synth and beats and production. It’s an exciting display of rock ’n’ roll and a noticeable break from her folk-leaning beginnings,

The release of “Comeback Kid,” the first single from “Remind Me Tomorrow” was when we realized 1. the old Sharon can’t come to the phone right now and 2. the new Sharon is a dark queen. Of all the songs on this record, this slingshot is the most intense, and it also marks a pivotal point in Van Etten’s career, when she introduced us to a whole new trove of her capabilities as a musician. Van Etten returned with firepower, a song so loud and alive we couldn’t tune it out.

The intensity of “Seventeen” matches that of the two previously released singles from “Remind Me Tomorrow, “Comeback Kid” and “Jupiter 4.” We’ve always counted on Van Etten to bring excellent lyrics and brooding melodies to the table, but we’ve never heard her like this—emboldened and chasing a darker, more driving strand of rock ‘n’ roll. “Seventeen” is almost Springsteen-esque in its grandiosity and nostalgia, though it’s more charged. The track’s companion video is, as Van Etten put it in a tweet, a “love letter” to New York City. In the clip, Van Etten chases a perfectly cast “shadow” of her former self (seriously—it’s eerie how similar these two look) around NYC, reckoning with her past and remembering when “she used to be 17.” The video is sentimental, but Van Etten is skeptical of youth’s glow, too: “I used to feel free, or was it just a dream?” she sings.

Van Etten gravitated towards synths on this record, thanks in part to indie archetype Michael Cera – they shared a practice space – which sees her formerly guitar-based music open up to new sonic textures. Yet the album remains anchored by Van Etten’s vulnerable, honest and good-humoured lyricism, which while haunted by a recurring “shadow”, glows with the loving perspective of a new mother.

We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong (2022)

We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong” is a career-spanning Van Etten record. She elected to not share any singles prior to the album’s release, making a statement on artistic control, productivity and the dedication she has to her craft. The record beautifully taps into every era of Van Etten’s career, weaving in and out of acoustic ballads, synthy, atmospheric flickers and orchestral compositions fit for high-ceiling chambers or starry amphitheaters. It’s less a follow-up to “Remind Me Tomorrow” and more a first step towards something grander, something Van Etten perhaps hasn’t even figured out yet. “Born” is a magnetic, sprawling opera (“It was something like a window / And I wanted to break free”), while “Headspace” follows as a sensual, brash tune with inversely sublime lyrics (“I want to touch you in the dark”). Lyrically, Van Etten has stripped back her usual approach, trading in on-the-nose dissections for more accessible couplets about desire and moving on.

But instrumentally, she’s never been more experimental, electing to make these songs feel conversational through arrangements that perfectly complement her vocal performances. On every preceding project, Van Etten sounded like she was scratching at some kind of revelation; on “We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong“, she’s made peace with what she has, or hasn’t, discovered.

The Albums:

  • Because I Was in Love (2009)
  • epic (2010)
  • Tramp (2012)
  • Are We There (2014)
  • Remind Me Tomorrow (2019)
  • We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, (2022)

The EPs:

  • Amazon Artist Lounge – EP (2014)
  • I Don’t Want to Let You Down – EP (2015)

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