Review: Sharon Van Etten’s “Tramp”


JagjaguwarJagjaguwar

Sharon Van Etten
Tramp
Jagjaguwar

Sharon Van Etten, a singer-songwriter based out of Brooklyn, has slowly been building a reputation for herself over the past few years. First pegged as a talent to watch by TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone, she won critical acclaim and a small but devoted following with her 2009 album Because I Was In Love (Language of Stone), 2010’s epic (Ba Da Bing), and opening stints for the Antlers and Neko Case. Last summer, at Justin Vernon’s urging, she signed with Jagjaguwar, a label with a roster of distinctive indie-folk performers, including Vernon’s Bon Iver, the Cave Singers, and Black Mountain. Tramp—produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner and featuring contributions from members of the Walkmen, Wye Oak, and Beirut—might be the album that finally breaks her into the (relative) bigtime.

The album opens with Van Etten’s voice languidly swooping over grungy guitars on “Warsaw,” a song that was lodged in my brain for days. Though lyrics like “I want to be over you”  are standard heartbreak fare, Van Etten lingers over them in a way that suggests she might take her time about it. The repeated refrains of “Give Out”—”You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city/Or why I’ll need to leave” and “It might not be I always hold on/It might be I always hold out”—likewise epitomize Van Etten’s characteristic combination of simple but perceptive lyricism and powerful delivery, while the album’s first single, the uptempo but ominous “Serpents,” showcases her vocal and emotional range as she’s alternately vulnerable and accusatory, soaring on the line “serpents in my mind” before sneering “you enjoy sucking on dreams.”

But the next song, “Kevin’s,” loses momentum, and the middle of the album slumps a bit. Songs like “In Line,” and “Leonard,” aren’t immediately as compelling as the songs they’re bookended by, and it’s tempting to tune out for a few minutes—but don’t, or you’ll miss lyrics like “Buried in masculine pain all the time” and “I am bad at loving you” hidden within quietly gorgeous harmonies.

The pace picks back up with “All I Can,” which starts out slow but steadily builds into an apologetic anthem as Van Etten pleads “we all make mistakes.” On “We Are Fine,” an inspired collaboration with Zach Condon and Julianna Barwick: the Beirut frontman’s rich, mournful voice is an ideal complement to Van Etten’s soprano, and her slurred reassurances paired with Barwick’s ethereal shimmer give the song a dreamy, surreal feel.

Van Etten’s voice is tremendously expressive, by turns powerful and breathy, twangy and sophisticated, earnest and seductive—and occasionally all at once. Fortunately, she and Dessner know better than to overwhelm it, while still managing to give the album a richer sound than her sparse first record. Even where instrumentation features more prominently—she’s backed by a shimmering curtain of sound on “I’m Wrong,” while a marching drumbeat and organ pace the sultry saunter of “Magic Chords”—it’s in service to Van Etten’s delivery.

With a final song, “Joke and a Lie,” that’s simpler and slower than almost any other on the album, Van Etten doesn’t bring the album to a close so much as put it on pause, practically asking you to play it again. And you should: Tramp is an album that, even more than most, rewards repeat listens; the more you hear it, the more the subtleties of Van Etten’s phrasing and tone come out, and along with them, the intimacies of the stories she tells. She’s clearly a master of the art of the slow burn, and Tramp should add kindling to a soon-to-be smoldering career.

OUR NEW CORRUPTION PROJECT

The more we thought about how MoJo's journalism can have the most impact heading into the 2020 election, the more we realized that so many of today's stories come down to corruption: democracy and the rule of law being undermined by the wealthy and powerful for their own gain.

So we're launching a new Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption. We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We'll publish what we find as a major series in the summer of 2020, including a special issue of our magazine, a dedicated online portal, and video and podcast series so it doesn't get lost in the daily deluge of breaking news.

It's unlike anything we've done before and we've got seed funding to get started, but we're asking readers to help crowdfund this new beat with an additional $500,000 so we can go even bigger. You can read why we're taking this approach and what we want to accomplish in "Corruption Isn't Just Another Scandal. It's the Rot Beneath All of Them," and if you like how it sounds, please help fund it with a tax-deductible donation today.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate