After Lana Del Rey’s tortured pop princess act last week and Madonna’s gladiator-cheerleader jukebox musical on Superbowl Sunday, the new Sharon Van Etten record came as a welcome burst of understated authenticity. There’s nothing flashy or pretentious about Van Etten. Tramp is harder and a bit more country than her prior folky material, but still a far cry from hard rock, and as far from the dance floor as a wallflower at the prom. Her songs are still mostly about heartbreak, with plainspoken titles like “All I Can,” “We Are Fine,” “Give Out,” and “In Line.” Her lyrics are still filled with earnest lines like: “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city/And why I might leave.” And apparently her real name is Sharon Van Etten.
Unlike Del Rey, there’s nothing controversial about Van Etten’s life story: She grew up in New Jersey, moved to Tennessee, then settled a few years ago in Brooklyn. The new record is called Tramp, as in vagabond, not prostitute. (Apparently, she’s done a bit of couch surfing). And there’s no controversy about her critical acclaim or any charges of unwarranted overnight success. Her profile has grown steadily from her Pitchfork-blessed debut in 2009 to recent mainstream press for Tramp, which includes Jimmy Fallon, NPR’s First Listen, and a profile in The New York Times Magazine. With all that attention, it’s easy to forget that only a year ago she was “shitting her pants” when she played the Bowery Ballroom.
Tramp is longer, louder, sleeker, and more musically sophisticated than Van Etten’s first two records. Both Because I Was in Love and Epic centered on her solo voice –a middle ground between pretty and gritty–and workmanlike acoustic guitar. They sound one step up from the coffeehouse. By contrast, Tramp has professional polish, with layered vocal harmony, electric and acoustic guitars, organ, ukelele, and drums. Most songs follow the classic arc: quiet beginning with an instrument or two, a gradual increase in volume and complexity, followed by a peak, and a quiet denouement. The album follows a similar pattern, from the reverb heavy electric guitar that opens “Warsaw” to the feedback fade that ends the final ballad “Joke or a Lie.”
Credit for Tramp’s tasteful aesthetic and high level of musicianship goes to producer Aaron Dessner, guitarist and main songwriter for The National. Other guest musicians include Dessner’s brother Bryce (The National), Zach Condon (Beirut), Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak), Matt Barrick (The Walkmen), Thomas Bartlette (Doveman), and Julianna Barwick. That’s a lot of indie rock royalty. But unlike, say, Schoolboy Q’s Habits and Contradictions, the guests never upstage the main act. Van Etten is always the star, even when she shares lead vocals with Condon on “We Are Fine,” one of the album’s few light-hearted spots.
Van Etten’s lyrics are specific enough to seem rooted in experience, but vague enough to apply to anyone who’s struggled to make a relationship work, mourned an ex-lover, or suffered from a broken heart. In “I’m Wrong” she sings to a long-distance lover: “Tell me I’m worth all the miles you put on your car.” In “Ask,” she realizes: “I think I need more than flowers and letters, man.” As the rest of Tramp makes clear, she doesn’t want the trapping of love; she wants the real thing.
While there’s plenty of angst, the songs stop short of despair and self-pity. For all the pain in the lyrics, Van Etten keeps a lid on her emotions. She never sounds unhinged or desperate or besotted or angry or vengeful. One could argue that Tramp is too restrained, too tasteful, too appropriate –and cite the album as futher proof that indie rock has become too adult contemporary. But if Van Etten lacks the experimental edge of Merrill Garbus or Annie Clarke, there’s no doubting her sincerity or her skill at rendering a new take on a classic formula: girl, guitar, and grief.
Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrst. He recently wrote about Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die, part of a dialogue with L.V. Lopez. In 2011, he saw Sharon Van Etten at the Bowery Ballroom in January and in December at the Beacon Theater, where she opened for The National.