As the digital world gives us more and more opportunities to interact from afar—i.e. not really interact—with each other, the singer-songwriter feels more and more like an alien being. With no project name to hide behind, and often digging into personal, sometimes uncomfortably confessional stories, the world of the singer-songwriter has always been difficult and yes, sometimes cloying. So that Sharon Van Etten has garnered the attention she has, particularly for 2009’s excellent epic, is its own small feat.
She is nothing if not confessional—her tales of heartache play like a less remote version of someone like Chan Marshall—but she has proven that good songs and great singing do their own work. Van Etten is right up front, laid out plain, and that is what we’ve responded to. Of course, as she’s given life to the singer-songwriter—or at least her iteration of it—she’s also pushed at its boundaries. After the guitar and voice of Because I Was In Love, she expanded into countrified thumpers and moody atmospheric pieces on Epic, and that expansion continues to often brilliant effect on Tramp.
The subjects of the songs themselves haven’t changed much. They are still heartbroken, but nothing here feels warn or overdone. Van Etten’s true gift as a songwriter is her ability to evoke huge emotions from the tiniest of gestures. It isn’t the first kiss or the first fight or the break-up that drives these songs—it’s a glance, a moment in a crowded room, a word said too late or not said at all. “There were your eyes in the dark of the room,” she sings to start “Give Out”, and even if you don’t know whether they are glowing with love or contempt yet, you’re right there with Van Etten, transfixed, held in the moment. “Serpents” starts with the same pregnant stillness, as she sings of the “close call, sitting in the back of the room” tensed but ready for whatever happens next.
Even at the moment of break, where it all becomes too much and people split—for tonight or forever—it’s the odd detail that sticks in the mind that frames these stories. “Leonard” focuses on the closing of a door, not really the person who just walked out of it. Of course, Tramp may focus on the small stuff because they are the same things that can heal us. “Leonard” has a triumphant chorus—Van Etten’s usually smoldering voice opens up in a high, sweet keen—as she recognizes that he is still there, that this end wasn’t permanent. Not this time anyway.
The way we heal is a huge part of Tramp, but it is a double-edged affair. Van Etten focuses on music itself, begging someone to “sing (her) a song” on opener “Warsaw” and later on “I’m Wrong” she finds comfort in finishing her own songs, in getting these feelings down on paper. Songs, however, can fool us, too. When Van Etten isn’t focused on her own songs on “I’m Wrong”, she tells her long-distance lover “it’s bad to believe in any song you sing”, which implies that she both mistrusts the comfort yet still dives right into it time and time again. Lies, the ones told to us and the ones we tell ourselves, connect to songs on Tramp as well. The hushed tension of closer “Joke or a Lie” shows the two sides of healing beautifully here. She wants to hear one of those two things, whichever will make her feel better, and we recognize the short-lived relief we find in these, even as it continues a much larger vicious cycle.
The expansive sounds behind Van Etten—created in collaboration with producer Aaron Dessner from the National—sell all this mood well, brooding as much as she does, expanding out in beautiful waves of sound and sometimes cracking at the edges. “I’m Wrong” crackles and fizzes faintly around Van Etten, organs swell and groan all over the record, and voices pile up—Van Etten doubles her own vocals, but others show up, including Juliana Barwick, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner and Beirut’s Zach Condon—into affecting choruses that belie the isolated nature of Van Etten’s songs. The sound of these songs, both beautiful and troubling shows just how this heartache ripples outward, and even obscures reason. The refrain on “All I Can”, where voices come together to belt out “We all make mistakes” should not sound as triumphant as it does. On “We Are Fine”, a sweet acoustic duet with Condon, Van Etten insists that he “take (her) hand and help me not to shake, say ‘I’m all right.’”
It’s a nice sentiment, but the way organs moan around them, and their own tenuous gestures in the song, tell us that things are far from all right. Tramp exists in a respite between crises, in the small things that get us through, and in the hope that things won’t go this wrong the next time around. In all this size, the record does have a few growing pains—Van Etten’s languid singing and the steady slow tempo of the record make for a kind of sweet but heavy exhaustion—but it also shows some interesting twists, including the moody, powerful rock heft of “Serpents”. Tramp is confirmation that Van Etten is a singular talent in the singer-songwriter world, a voice that commands attention through sheer power and the subtle impact of her words. She may lay everything out on the table on Tramp, but its success comes in knowing that even when we can see it all—even when it’s written on her sleeve in big letters—things aren’t always what they seem.