Blue Robot

Album Review: “Tramp” by Sharon Van Etten

Posted by Matt D'Ippolito on 02/10 at 11:58 AM

Grade: B

Sharon Van Etten’s third album represents a culmination in the evolution of her confidence. The voice on Tramp is much stronger than the one we heard on Epic and a far cry from the quiet murmurs of Because I Was in Love. The lyrical content of the music seems to have matured in much the same way. The timid girl who sang “Lately I’ve seen / confidence and grace / crawl in a ball / and fear I’ve lost my faith” in the song “I Fold” now repeats that she is alright on the track “We Are Fine” and belts out “You enjoy sucking on dreams,” calling out a former flame in “Serpents.”

For those who don’t know the folk singer, Van Etten is a New Jersey native whose music often focuses on past relationships, especially a particularly destructive one. After several years of her musical dreams being stifled, she ended the relationship and began piquing the interest of prominent indie rockers like TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone, The Antlers and The National. In fact, she provided vocals on The Antlers’ “Thirteen” and The National’s “Think You Can Wait.”

Her new album continues to revolve around heartache and recovery, a theme Van Etten has said is a kind of musical therapy that’s cliche for a reason. The difference this time around is the divergence in aspects of this theme throughout the album. While some tracks are the usual heartache songs, like “Kevin’s,” or about the confusion of love, like “Leonard,” there is also another range of emotions. For example, “We Are Fine” is a cautiously optimistic, self-reassuring tune that announces to the world exactly what the title implies. On the other hand, Van Etten channels anger in “Serpents.”

It’s clear why this was the album’s first single. “Serpents” is going to be the biggest song from this album because it really showcases what Van Etten can do. The singer’s drone builds into more of a wail as she approaches the first chorus. For a singer who is known for her simple compositions, this song is a departure from what fans are used to. The drums and guitars have much more of a presence, with a quick rock beat and heavy strumming that speak to a rock’n'roll influence. This is probably at least partially a product of the album’s producer, The National‘s Aaron Dessner.

The first song of the album, “Warsaw,” contains typical breakup-song content lyrically but with a more active beat than you’d expect and reverberant, gruff guitar wails underneath that suggest she is pushing herself over an ex, willing herself into happiness again. It kicks the album off to a surprising start, the first of three songs with much stronger vocals and more active beats than we’ve come to expect from Van Etten. These first few tracks still manage to retain her characteristic alto drone while exercising her new-found confidence, culminating in “Serpents.”

After this initially strong lineup, however, the album goes into a slump. The next few songs certainly aren’t bad, but they are as unmoving as their predecessors are impressive. The apologetic “All I Can” begins to pick the album up again with a few bluesy vocal dips at the beginning before the tempo and volume slowly increase and guitar and drums join the soft piano, building to a more triumphant sound. But the rich vocal harmonies of “We Are Fine” are what really pull the album back up.

Magic Chords” provides another notable track with its rattling snare march contrasting sharply with the lovely organ and sweet vocal harmony between Van Etten and a male voice. The next two songs, “Ask” and “I’m Wrong,” return to a more strictly folk feel that sounds closer to something the Avett Brothers might do.

The closing track, “Joke or a Lie,” is an almost painfully slow song that leaves the listener eerily on edge and waiting for more. It was certainly an intriguing choice to end with. Van Etten’s breathy vocals are backed by the occasional guitar strum and ethereal synth sounds in the back, some of which are a harsh, high pitch that ebb and flow noticeably and might ring in your ears after the song is over.

While the album isn’t perfect - far from it, actually - it’s strong tracks more than redeem it and may push Van Etten more prominently into the spotlight. It will be the first three tracks and “We Are Fine” that garner her the most attention, but most especially “Serpents.”

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{name} Author: Matt D'Ippolito
Bio: Matthew D’Ippolito is currently a senior majoring in print journalism at Penn State with minors in political science and music technology. He plans on writing for Rolling Stone or Variety one day. Matt enjoys reading, playing sax, hiking and fishing. He enjoys a wide variety of music, but some favorites are punk, indie rock, classic rock, dubstep, jazz and classical. His favorite bands at the moment are Titus Andronicus, Streetlight Manifesto, Cloud Cult, Explosions in the Sky and ZOX.

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