Sharon Van Etten - Tramp (2012)
Brooklyn singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten’s rise to prominence in the national independent music scene happened to coincide almost perfectly with when I started my blog. Right around November 2010, her sophomore record Epic began to gain the attention of big name music blogs like Pitchfork and NPR Music, and she was perfectly poised to catch my attention as well, although that probably doesn’t matter to her very much. Nevertheless, I followed her throughout 2011 on the strength of Epic. Despite my love for it, I always found the album’s title to be somewhat misleading, or perhaps purposefully ironic. With just seven songs in 32 minutes, Epic is not nearly long enough to live up to its grandiose title. Furthermore, the record’s sound, which predominantly features Van Etten’s gorgeous and understated vocals with acoustic guitar and minimal extra instrumentation, doesn’t evoke anything “epic” either. Her previous record’s title may have been something of an in-joke, but on her new album Tramp, perhaps “Epic” would have been a more appropriate descriptor.
If Van Etten wasn’t striving for “epic” on Epic, she certainly is now. Tramp is everything that her previous record wasn’t. It’s lengthy (over 46 minutes), stacked with songs (twelve of them), and simply bigger in scope than anything she’s done before. She largely shies away from the singer/songwriter acoustic guitar formula on the record, replacing the intimate and simplistic arrangements of her earlier work with lush, dense instrumentation, heavy drums, and occasionally searing electric guitar, as exemplified by the opener “Warsaw” and the stellar single “Serpents.” In the past few years on the indie rock circuit, Van Etten has made a lot of friends in the scene, contributing vocal work to the music of well known bands like The National, Beirut, and The Antlers. On her new record, she enlists a number of these friends and more as collaborators, and it shows. Tramp’s liner notes read like a who’s-who list of upper-tier indie rockers, featuring (take a breath) Aaron and Bryce Dessner from The National and Zach Condon from Beirut, in addition to Julianna Barwick, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, The Walkmen’s Matt Barrick, and Doveman’s Thomas Bartlett. They all contribute to the record’s pumped up aesthetic in some way or another, sometimes separately (Condon contributes ukelele and vocals to the jaunty “We Are Fine”) and often together. “Serpents” alone features Wasner, Barrick, Bartlett, and both Dessner brothers.
Her sound may have been inflated and her guest list stacked on Tramp, but her overall approach to writing songs remains consistent. Van Etten’s formula of songwriting consists of using vague and rather broadly applicable lyrics that somehow retain a biting sense of realness and unbridled honesty. Epic employed the same formula, but with Tramp, Van Etten trades the previous record’s inwardly personal lyrics for raw, occasionally bitter lines directed at someone else. On “Give Out,” she sings to a second person lover, “In my way I say / you’re the reason why I’ll leave for the city / or why I’ll need to leave.” Tramp is especially hard to listen to at times because of its subject matter; Ven Etten sounds like she’s breaking up with you on each song.
Tramp is not strictly a breakup album, but rather an album that explores the tenuous, uncertain, and uncomfortable period between when a relationship stops working and when it finally gets put out of its misery. Van Etten constantly straddles the line between preserver and destroyer, effectively toying with her lover although certainly not intending to do so. The emotional rollercoaster that she experiences throughout the record is captured beautifully on the album highlight “Serpents.” She admits that she “feel[s] safe at times,” but in the very next line, cryptically asserts that “certain emblems tell me it’s time.” The feelings she has while wrestling with what she knows she will have to do are the “serpents in [her] mind” that she describes in the song’s electrifying chorus. As someone coming out on the other end of a breakup myself, lines like these are difficult to stomach. Honestly for me, the best lyrical moments on the album are when Van Etten admits her own fault in the inevitable outcome of the relationship that she describes. On “Leonard,” she exasperatedly sings, “I am bad at loving you.” On “All I Can, she’s desperately exclaiming, “I do all I can / We all make mistakes.” The sentiment is certainly simplistic, but it’s also powerfully articulated and expressed by Van Etten’s unique voice.
The real problem with Tramp is not in its songs, which are uniformly well written and certainly on par with her others, but in the way that the songs are presented. The dense aesthetic that characterizes most of the album is not inherently unsuited to her music, but it occasionally feels a little forced. The passionate “All I Can” starts out nicely, but feels a little overwhelming by the time it reaches its guitar-heavy climax. “Magic Chords” begins with anomalous bullet drums and dubby synths, and features a male guest vocalist whose low voice clashes harshly with Van Etten’s ethereal coos. Furthermore, although the list of guest performers on Tramp is certainly exciting on paper, I’m not sure if Van Etten is quite ready to enlist such high brow names on her own music yet. To me, it often distracts from Van Etten herself, who obviously deserves to be the central focus of Tramp. For instance, “We Are Fine,” the song featuring Zach Condon, actually feels like more of a Beirut song than a Sharon Van Etten song. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, because Beirut is pretty good, but I wish it felt like a Sharon Van Etten song, because it is one. Tramp occasionally comes across like an indie rock version of an upstart rapper’s overwrought debut album, bloated with big names and lacking coherence because of it.
This isn’t a universal problem, thankfully. The record does have its moments of uncluttered beauty, and these are among the best moments on the album. Aside from the fantastic “Serpents,” which really hits the mark with its heavier sound, my favorite song on Tramp is “Kevin’s,” a mournful and minimalistic folk song that would have fit in nicely on Epic. Van Etten also does occasionally find harmony in the album’s dense sound, at least when she tempers it somewhat; the last two songs “I’m Wrong” and “Joke Or A Lie” evoke Epic’s more dirge-like numbers with their slow tempos and primarily keyboard-based atmospheres.
It’s difficult to knock Sharon Van Etten for being ambitious, because she certainly deserves to have ambition. However, Tramp is indicative that some of her ambition should be put on a leash, at least until she learns where she really stands as a musician.
Tramp is out February 7th on Jagjaguwar. Pre-order the record HERE on CD or LP.