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Album Review

by Sharon Van Etten


Review Date
3rd April, 2012
Reviewed by
Gareth Meade

So much is said during the first two songs on Sharon Van Etten’s third album Tramp, that the pair of tracks act as a perfect representation for everything that follows. Expansive (relative to Van Etten’s two previous albums) opening track ‘Warsaw’ is texturally rich, building towards crashing cymbals and reverberating guitars that weave around Van Etten’s trademark confessional lyrics and vulnerable voice. Conversely, ‘Give Out’ is sparse and haunting, gradually adding instrumentation that is barely audible above the acoustic guitar and vocal quiver she employs so effectively. That stylistic shift recurs as the album winds on, seeing the emphasis change from a lone voice one moment; to the swelling atmospherics it accompanies the next. It makes for an album of few surprises, yet one that possesses unrelenting beauty and confidence.

As Tramp continues to unwind, the pattern repeats unabated; big ideas giving way to small ideas, both as successful as each other. The deft touch of The National’s Aaron Dressner, who handles production duties, is unmistakable where it needs to be and reserved where it doesn’t. With The Walkman’s Matt Barrick on drums on ‘Serpents’, the song blossoms in a way a National song might, but the momentum takes the song in a different direction, never losing sight of Van Etten’s voice as a centrepiece. The guest stars don’t end at Dressner and Barrick either, with more indie luminaries making their presence known as the album continues; the list including Beirut’s Zack Condon, Wye Oaks’ Jenn Wasner and Aaron’s brother and band mate Bryce.

But Tramp never loses sight of who the real star here is. Van Etten’s voice is a powerful instrument that evokes heartbreak one moment and optimism the next. It soars along with the gradual build up of ‘In Line’, grows stronger and louder on the anthemic ‘All I Can’ and is yet even more powerful during ‘I’m Wrong’, despite the productions best efforts to drown her out. While comparisons to Cat Power’s Chan Marshall are fair, especially on the Condon featuring ‘We Are Fine’, Van Etten is too malleable to completely pin down.

Closing song ‘Joke or a Lie’ chooses to end the album not as it began, but on the softest note of all. “I am alone / but I am alone in this room with you” she sings, which is exactly the feeling the track evokes in the listener. It’s a beautiful end to a striking album that confirms just how breathtaking Sharon Van Etten’s songwriting and singing has become.

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