Tag Archive: Sharon Van Etten

This article first appeared at No Ripcord on June 5, 2014.


Throughout the last three albums, Sharon Van Etten has shown us her fear, vulnerability, anguish, anger and regret, all springing out of one awful, abusive relationship. Although all those records, especially Epic and Tramp were excellent, Are We There is an album of new experiences and new relationship troubles.

While earlier records felt steeped in Van Etten’s own past, Are We There looks at the present, or at least very recent history. The struggle between being a musician and being in a relationship is not an easy one. Often, the ties binding the romance get taut and eventually snap. Van Etten doesn’t give up or give in to despondence, though. Instead, she does what she does best: she writes beautifully-crafted songs.

The album starts with Afraid of Nothing, a mix of slow key chords and a nimble guitar pattern. From the first verse, Van Etten’s words spill out of her mouth, almost faster than the music can keep up with, singing“And you decide you throw me a lame “wait shit out!”/You’re a little late/I need you to be afraid of nothing.” On the lead single, she sings that she is Taking Chances that her partner seems scared to try, crooning over an in-the-pocket bass and some tight R&B synths.

Her musical expansion spreads all over this record. Our Love opens smoothly with sharp guitars and a low-key synth line, sounding a bit like TV On The Radio, until her voice cracks in. Tarifa has touches of horns that wilt in the background, a lovely, subtle part of the melody. An electronic hum forms the backing ofBreak Me, with high-pitched guitar notes breaking into the chorus.

When you listen to a Van Etten record though, you’re listening for her expressive, emotional voice. Whether she’s forming gorgeous harmonies with herself on Nothing Will Change or belting out angry and anguish lines like “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/Stab my eyes so I can’t see” on Your Love Is Killing Me, she always leaves you hanging on to every syllable.

It’s a good thing she does too, since Van Etten is one of the few artists who can continuously, almost exclusively sing about love without it becoming cliche. Two of the best sets of lyrics on the album are the ones that deal with that line between romance and career. I Love You But I’m Lost is a beautiful piano ballad that puts all the focus on her wounded voice, as she sings “Tearstains, I believe it/I’m in Houston/I can’t read my lines.” On I Know,  she says “Now I turn into a lover on the side/I cannot tell the poet eye apart from mine.” But despite the troubles, the love is still there: “And here we are apart, but here together are our hearts/That now beat for each other, although far”

Despite all the heartache, all the sadness found on Are We There, it ends with a laugh from Van Ettenafter her headphones fall off on Every Time The Sun Comes Up. It reveals yet another side to this musician, who has continued to pull back layer after layer since she first appeared on the scene. Her pain, her flaws, her confidence and her laughter make her one of the most relatable songwriters around today, as human as the rest of us.




The closing track from Sharon Van Etten’s upcoming third album, Are We There?, is a powerful bit of music. Pounding drums and guitar arpeggios dominate the musical landscape, but there are fragments of keyboards in the background that add a nice touch. Of course, the main attraction has always been Van Etten herself. “Every time the sun comes up, I see trouble,” she sings. Where in the past, her voice would be cautious or afraid, she’s confident enough to know how to get through any problems in her way. The songs ends with Van Etten laughing as she accidentally drops her headphones. It’s these human touches that drew crowds to her music in the first place. While it has usually been on the darker side of life, it’s just as enjoyable to happily laugh alongside her.

When Sharon Van Etten set down to record her third LP, she didn’t have a place to live. She crashed on the couches of friends, her only constant being the studio. Despite her rootlessness and the record’s vagrant title, Tramp is a record that feels like it was made at home. After all, home is something to share with another. If you lose that relationship, you can lose any sense of belonging. It’s easy to picture Van Etten cradling her guitar in a bedroom, picking out the notes that speak to the person who just walked out the door. It’s these heartfelt melodies of sadness, frustration, and contradiction that make Tramp both a universal and very personal experience.

While promoting her second album, epic, Van Etten caught the attention of The National’s Aaron Dessner. He was so impressed with her song “Love More” that he covered it with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. Soon after, he took up production duties for this LP, giving the singer-songwriter both an editor and an arranger. The musical evolution is immediately noted in the opener “Warsaw”. Sharp electric chords vibrate outwards, putting forward an aggressiveness that Van Etten barely hides in her own vocals. Later on, Dessner’s production moves “I’m Wrong” from a picked-out guitar pattern to a swirl of feedback, ebow, glockenspiel, and trombone.

The National’s guitarist did more than just instrumental flourishes though. He helped Van Etten get angry and learn to rock out. This fierceness is fully displayed on “Serpents” and to a lesser extent in “Magic Chords”. The former tenses up with Bryce Dessner’s slide guitar and Matt Barrick’s propulsive, blood-pumping beat as she rips those who’ve wronged her to shreds. Piercing statements like “I will fall asleep with someone other than you” have never sounded as bitter. But even at her maddest, the hope that “he changes this time” still remains.

Both times that Van Etten lashes out; she follows up with pure melancholy, like the rage had left her emotionally wounded and drained. “Kevin’s” delivery is the voice of a shattered heart that threatens to coalesce into ice. Over hollow chords, she can barely muster the strength to sing. She keeps trying to steady herself with attacking lines like “You dig your own grave”. The simplicity of “Ask” puts emphasis on Etten’s visualization (“Like cigarette ash/the world is collapsing around me”) and surrender (“It’s not that I don’t try / It’s that you won’t again”).

This isn’t the narrative of one woman though. The pain Van Etten sings about is widespread and she portrays it as such. “What will it take? / We all make mistakes” is tiredly crooned through the feather-light strums and synth-organs taps of “All I Can”. During “In Line”, spectral wails echo in the background as she tumbles “right into ghosts”. Are these her phantoms or the specters of other hurt souls? It’s never addressed and never needs to be.

By the time “Joke or a Lie” gently winds down, it feels like an emotive exorcism has taken place. Exhausted, she ends the album singing “Call it a joke or a lie. / Put your coat on, then believe me. / I tried”. In the end of a failed relationship, all that’s left to do is move on. Van Etten did so by writing songs as an emotional catharsis. Given the quality of her art, many people will hopefully get as much healing out of Tramp as she did.