review: Sharon van Etten 'Tramp'

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Brooklyn-based Sharon van Etten has been steadily establishing herself as a folk-rock songwriter with two fine albums, Because I Was In Love and Epic. For her third album Tramp she finds herself with a wider musical palate to work with, courtesy of producer Aaron Dessner of the National and a stream of indie-rock collaborators including Zach Condon of Beirut, and members of Wye Oak and the Walkmen.
All the pre-publicity for Tramp has dealt with the album's difficult gestation period, as it was largely written and recorded when van Etten was not in a relationship and was living a transient existence, touring and sleeping on sofas.
It initially comes across as a very bleak album and it took a few listens to click with me. Doleful and dirge-like are two words to describe this, and that isn't meant as an insult. A quick glance at the track listing shows the titles are all short, and are often just mono-syllabic words. In contrast, the overall sound of Tramp is fuller than her previous releases although Dessner's production is very subtle and this clearly isn't a National record with a female vocal. Far from it in fact. Van Etten comes across as assured though slightly fragile in her delivery, and the overall sense of bleakness is only lifted by the odd lilt in her voice and some very striking lyrics.
'Give Out' is the finest example of her lyrical craft, and much like the rest of these songs it sees her lost and alone and over-analysing her past relationships. One verse in particular in worth quoting in full,
“I’m biting my lip as confidence is speaking to me. I loosen my grip on my palm, put it on your knee. In my way, I say, you’re the reason why I’ll move to the city or why I’ll need to leave."
Those two lines in themselves are enough of a reason to investigate this album; the way that they sum up her feelings about that relationship in such brief detail is a skill rarely found outside prime-period Go-Betweens, for example.
Next track 'Serpents' is the rockiest arrangement and it works really well, and the sad but pretty 'Kevin's' brings the tempo back down. 'Leonard' is another beautiful song and her vocals weave such a great folky melody over more relationship analysis. “I am bad at loving you,” she sings on the refrain.
Her vocals are often double-tracked or accompanied and I actually think that this larger sound works well for her, although I guess some may complain that the rawness is diluted. I wouldn't agree, I don't think Tramp is an easy listen at all.
“We Are Fine”, which is essentially a duet with Beirut's Zach Condon, is musically more upbeat but the refrain of “I'm alright” seems to be coming from the perspective of a best friend or a professional counsellor, it's more a case of “we will be fine”, really.
“Magic Chords” is musically a bit different, built from basic snare drum and keyboards into a sing along refrain of “you got to lose sometimes.” It's also one of Sharon's strongest vocal performances here.
“I'm Wrong” is a gentler song which just floats without any rhythm track to anchor it; the lyrics are adrift with daydreams about someone else, she is letting us hear her thinking aloud.
There is an old adage about albums "growing on you" or "warranting repeated listens". In my experience this is very true of Tramp. Brutally honest and self-analytical, it sounds best when you are on your own late at night. I'm reminded of that old discussion about “who sings better in the dark?” The answer, at the moment, is Sharon van Etten.

Tramp was released in the UK yesterday, 7th February 2012. Sharon van Etten will be playing ATP's next Nightmare Before Christmas curated by the National, in about 10 months from now.

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