Most Indie artists have similar backstories: working odd jobs, moving frequently, putting out demo tapes every year or so until a label picks them up. In some ways Sharon Van Etten is a little different. Born in New Jersey and going to school in Tennessee, She has been surrounded by music most of her adult life. She self-released some mix tapes and albums between 2005 and 2009, when she released her Debut studio album ,Because I Was in Love, on Language of Stone records.
Her story with indie legends The National begins with her Jagjaguwar records Debut record, Tramp, produced by frontman Aaron Dessner. Released in 2012, this marked the beginning of a long running partnership between the two who frequently show up in each other’s music.
At the beginning of this year, Remind Me Tomorrow was released, being her first album since (and a follow up to) her 2014 album Are We There. In the time between the two, Sharon has been busy abting, producing, and being a mother to her first child. Most of the writing for this album happened while she was pregnant and attending school for a degree in Psychology.
This is her biggest album yet, featuring more musicians and more sounds, with this being her first record to include electric synth sounds and keys. Critical reception was warm as well, with most outlets putting it close to or on par with her last record. Are We There hit the Billboard 200 at number 25, while her latest album only made it to 94.
I haven’t spent much time with her previous music, in fact I only picked up this album because I liked the quality of the jacket and it was cheap (sometimes a good cover can lead to a great book). For someone getting into Sharon Van Etten, this isn’t the best introduction. In a lot of ways this album has a very new sound and signals a departure from her old formulas. Just like in life, her music went through changes too.
Most of the album is fairly slow paced and has a piano melody that carries the song. “I Told You Everything” is a very cold open, with a low humming sound building as her voice begins to shatter with backing vocals singing along with her splintering the lyrics as the piano/noise drops off to be picked up by smooth drums. The next song brings a lot of reverb distortion to the guitar and drums while her vocals contrast like mud on a glossy white marble counter.
The song “Memorial Day” has a familiar rhythm and bass line that is dark and moody. Etten’s light vocals contrast this nicely. It has a very theatrical vibe while still remaining very on brand for her. The next song isn’t, however. With heavy synth and distortion provided by producer John Congleton, the fast, rock-like drums from McKenzie Smith make this song hit hard. This is unfortunately where I find Etten’s vocals to fall short.
“Jupiter 4” is another drone heavy song in which Etten pops on the noisy background. It’s tracks like these that she shines the best on. Her voice is best put to work when she isn’t battling other instruments for attention. Rock drums and synthesizers require a punchy voice to hit through the instruments, which she doesn’t have. What she does is a beautiful angelic voice that could carry a song with delicate instruments or low bass.
I think we get close to this sweet point of her old, good sound and a new Rock vibe in “Seventeen”. Unfortunately, we also see another consequence of Rock is simplified lyrics. This song focuses around missing the feeling of being 17 years old, which albeit is very relatable, but fails to show any depth. Written with Kate Davis, of “all about that (upright) Bass” YouTube cover fame, the song is a nice, neat package for a lead single.
The organ and drum beat bring a refreshing funky beat to “You Shadow” and makes it a nice break on the album. I can’t really tell for sure, but “Hands” is also another song where we hear Etten’s vocals absolutely smashing like in ‘Comeback Kid”. But here, she comes up to the challenge, and she isn’t battling any loud synth sounds. I also really like the hook “put your hands on your lover. Put your hands up.” As for the last track, “Stay”, there isn’t much to it. It’s a forgettable song, especially following “Hands”.