Sharon Van Etten is a pretty good lady singer. The Internet tells me she writes folk songs about breaking up with people and then being sad about it; rather like a whole other bunch of pretty good lady singers. It’s a good shtick I hear, but it seems to insinuate lack of breadth (narrative, instrumental, whatever). And some of those criticisms have been levied at her previous works, and some of those criticisms were valid. So let me begin the review proper with this: Tramp is a great record.
Let me try to tell you why.
It is self-contained, thematically consistent, and on the whole a pleasure to listen to. Credit may be due in part, to others: The National’s Aaron Dessner produced Tramp, and there are guest spots from members of Wye Oak, Julianna Barwick, and Zach Condon. Dessner’s influence is all over the album, especially in the standout ‘Serpents,’ which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on The National’s gem, Boxer.
And yet, this is clearly a Sharon Van Etten album. Her songs, which tend towards the autobiographical, are honest and unromanticized. The themes she works with are no longer heartbreak (Because I Was In Love), or Adele-esque righteousness (Epic), but co-dependence and longing. From the refrain “I want to be over you” in the brooding album opener, “Warsaw,” to the frank admission in “Leonard” that she is “bad at loving,” anybody listening appreciates that this is entirely a personal album. Even her single, “Serpents” (the only proper rock song on the album), is bare and honest, using distressing imagery (“close in on my black eye”) to convey complex emotional concepts.
Consistently tense and aware (regardless of tempo or instrumentation), Van Etten conveys an emotional flexibility and depth that is sorely lacking in modern pop music. In Tramp, Sharon Van Etten combines that flexibility and depth with haunting instrumentation to convey something simultaneously tormented and ecstatic.