Sharon Van Etten: Tramp
Over the course of her first three albums, Sharon Van Etten has been constantly evolving. On her 2009 debut, Because I Was In Love, she was gaining confidence, dealing with a terrible boyfriend who tried to douse her musical ambitions, and finding her footing. On her 2010 sophomore album, Epic, pulled in a much larger sound, even while occupying the same thematic space for much of its run-time. Her newest effort, Tramp, is easily her most accomplished work to date, a departure both thematically and sonically from her previous work. Produced by Aaron Dessner of The National, the album (which includes appearances from Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner, Beirut's Zach Condon, The Walkmen's Matt Barrick and others) is her most assured work to date, turning away from the pain and the past, and moving toward a sort of rebirth.
The world-weariness and wisdom are still there in spades, as when she sings on "Give Out" to a lover that "you're the reason why I'll move to the city, or why I'll need to leave," yet there is a little light at the end of her tunnel this time out. Songs like "We Are Fine" (on which Condon guests), an upbeat strummer, give off the feeling that things might just get better given time. And Dessner's influences are ever-present but rarely overbearing. Songs like "Serpents," which deals with co-dependency through layers of metaphor, sound as if they have benefitted from his insight, and "All I Can" builds from a slow ballad into a trombone-laden crescendo that sonically mimics The National's own last effort, High Violet.
Van Etten is still predominantly preoccupied with notions of the awkwardness and danger of relationships, alienation and inherent distrust, yet the way she expresses them, and her outlook on the problems seem to have lightened a bit, or at least added room for a bit of optimism amidst the sea of sadness that was her first album. Sure, "We Are Fine" is about a panic attack, but in a more important way (and in a way that would have been less likely in her previous work), its about how a friend can help you through a tough time. If there is a flaw here, its in the way the album seems to float along in its later songs, in a way that seems strange considering both Van Etten and Dessner's general tendency for near-perfect timing elsewhere. Van Etten sings on "All I Can" that "I want my scars to help and heal." If her first two albums were working through the psychic pain of her past, Tramp feels in many ways like a beautiful catharsis. The pain is still there, to be sure, but its lessened a bit by perspective, and by a support system that, if the album's guest list is any indication, is large and strong. The past doesn't melt away, but we learn to live with the pain. And sometimes, we're the better for it.