The New Jersey singer-songwriter has treated us to four albums of lovelorn beauty. Gary Walker discovers a bold electronic departure on her fifth.
New Jersey’s Sharon Van Etten appeared an artist endlessly searching on 2012’s Tramp and sublime follow-up Are We There (2014). Those sparse records were characterised by mournful piano compositions, jagged alt-rock guitar adornments and Van Etten’s ghostly harmonies and towering, defiant vibrato. They were two of the finest albums to emerge from the Big Apple’s prolific indie scene in the period – lovelorn, direct and self- probing collections of truly brilliant cathartic writing.
Much has happened in the intervening years, and while the familiar opening piano chord of I Told You Everything hints mischievously at a revisit of Afraid Of Nothing, Are We There’s majestic, hopeful first track, the similarities between two records separated by four years end there. Gone are the crisp acoustic strumming, sombre piano ballads, droning omnichord and offset guitars. Aided by producer John Congleton, who Van Etten gave a stack of Suicide, Portishead and Nick Cave records as sonic reference points, Remind Me Tomorrow is a fearless stride into the electronic landscape, as Van Etten explores the New Wave, electronica and trip-hop in her record collection in strident fashion.
“We held hands as we parted,” she emotes on the opener over a stark backing of electronic drums and a foreboding growling synth bass. That early foray into electronic music proves just an initial flag in the ground, as No One’s Easy To Love grasps the baton, its similarly meaty bass foundation swirled around by effected piano arpeggios and an array of synths.
A Fresh Outlook
The mood is brooding on Memorial Day, with an ominous electronic pulse and otherly looped vocal
effect underpinning Van Etten’s ever-intoxicating woozy harmonies. It’s not just the sonic toolkit that has expanded – the album’s lyrical scope is broader, too, with an eye on the broader geo-political situation.
Startling first single Comeback Kid began life as a piano ballad, but with Van Etten insisting she “didn’t want it to be pretty”, it now effervesces wickedly to the sound of a 1970s Korg organ and a throbbing disco beat, confident chest-beating entry music for an artist returning to the arena with a fresh outlook. “I want to be a mom, a singer, an actress, go to school, but yeah, I have a stain on my shirt, oatmeal in my hair and I feel like a mess, but I’m here. Doing it,” Van Etten explains of an album she wrote while pregnant, back at college studying psychology and taking her first steps into an acting career in Netflix drama The OA. While once you pondered how Van Etten slept at night with such sorrowful thoughts circling around her brain, now you wonder when she sleeps.
Seventeen represents perhaps the most surprising departure, an anthemic, wistful nod to Bruce Springsteen that’s a nostalgic reflection on arriving in a big city young and green, with a propulsive groove. Throughout the album, there’s a sense of time shifting, Van Etten musing on new love and contentment, while appearing to pass on hard-earned wisdom to
a younger counterpart (or self) on Seventeen and a stinging riposte on You Shadow: “You ain’t nothing, you never won/ You ain’t nothing, you never do nothing wrong/ You don’t do nothing I don’t, do you shadow?”
Malibu is the closest Remind Me Tomorrow comes to the doleful, scorned Van Etten of Are We There, yet shimmering synths take over the reins, and after all those years of broken-hearted questioning, the singer appears to have found happiness: “The Black Crowes playing as he cleaned the floor/ I thought I couldn’t love him anymore”. Maybe, finally, Van Etten is there.
Written by Gary Walker. Released on Jagjaguwar.