Every now and then, an album is released that skips the good-bad critical scale. This happens not because it is such an instant classic that in no way could it be considered a bad effort; rather, it skips that scale because it is an album so emotionally invested in both itself and its listener that it doesn’t matter what the critical consensus is. The most recent example of this phenomenon is Sharon Van Etten’s stunning LP Tramp. The singer’s third release, Tramp is able to gnaw at the heartstrings of even the most cynical of listeners and burrow itself deep within the core of what it means to be in love and vulnerable.
Van Etten wastes no time in pummeling any sense of irony that a listener comes into the album with. After the electric guitar-tinged “Warsaw” moves in and clears a path to your heart, “Give Out” takes the shape of an Indiana Jones boulder and rams right into it. Featuring the solemn voice of a worn out lover, the song is quite simply the most gorgeous song to yet come out Van Etten’s vast musical talents. In fact, it would be shocking to see it be forgotten around the time of year-end lists; it’s that good. And how could it not be? A song that features a beautiful voice belting out such brutal honesty as “you’re the reason why I’ll move to the city/ or why I’ll need to live”. It’s simple in its message, but when backed by a constant strum and twinkling electric riffs, it hits at the origin of longing and love. There’s also a bit of anxiety present in the song; Van Etten’s vulnerability clashes with the fact that she has someone with her. As such, the contrast turns her paranoid, unquiet and disoriented: “what’s with the eyes/ in the back of the room?” goes the first line of the song (returning at the emotional climax).
Sharon Van Etten’s “Give Out”
The back of the room makes a return in the very next song, the lead single “Serpents”. Here, that locale takes the form of an abusive relationship; getting away from those serpents in her mind, Van Etten has left the back of the room by the end of the track, searching for someone else. “You enjoy sucking on dreams/ So I will fall asleep with someone other than you” goes her emboldened verse, running far away from the pain that caused her to sing these words. It’s a purposeful song, filled with the harshest instrumentation on the album; her usual vulnerable tones are replaced with a snarl of sorts and the backing band steps up accordingly, shedding the soft acoustics for, dare it be said, some rock n’ roll.
Unlike her previous album, the devastated Epic, there are some happy moments on Tramp amongst the creatively crestfallen. “All I Can” is a plea for forgiveness, or perhaps a self-assurance that she can forgive others. “We all mistakes.” This lyric is said with a finality that separates it from the words around it; an acknowledgement after deep soul-searching, simple in its message but powerful in its intent. Later, Van Etten sings “wanting to love as new as I can/ wanting to show I want my scars to help and heal.” It’s as if she’s writing this album so she herself can hear it and believe it, because no one is telling her these things. It’s definitely an album of realizing the past is always ours but the future is there for the taking. On “I’m Wrong”, there’s a yearning for acceptance and for, well, being worth something. In front of a repeating, soft guitar, Van Etten asks a lover to “tell me I’m worth all the miles/ that you put on your car” and to “tell me I’m right/ tell me I’m funny/ even when I’m not”. It’s simple assertion that she hasn’t had before, at least if “Serpents” is to believed, and it’s acceptance that she needs from the person she’s bearing her soul to. The music takes on a bit of a dark fuzz behind Van Etten’s voice here, because the storm is always just outside the new peace that you have found.
Tramp is a musically accomplished album, yet sometimes that gets lost behind the strength of Sharon Van Etten’s voice, both literal (the way she sings) and thematic (what she’s singing). It’s a beautifully written album, full of honesty that clues the listener into her healing process from a failed relationship (as has been written ad-nausea, she was dumped by a boyfriend who thought she would not succeed as a musician; like Adele’s ex, this guy must hate life right now). It’s rare that we are allowed such an in-depth look at a person, but with Van Etten, not only are we curious to learn more, but we also want to help her in any way we can. The twist might be that she may not need us to; she just needs someone to listen.
Written by Luis Paez-Pumar