Sharon Van Etten: Demos

[7 January 2013]

By Robin Smith

“You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city” is Sharon Van Etten’s first lovelorn declaration on Tramp, before it gets torn up: “Or why I’ll have to leave.” Proudly titled for the woman in-between and down, her third record is constantly teetering on little contradictions, nomadic folk music spurned and caustic, born of homelessness but surrounded by friends to help make it a masterpiece, and meticulously crafted in spite of its displacement issues. In their press release, Jagjaguwar notes the closest thing Van Etten came to a home while writing was Aaron Dessner’s recording garage, and it helps explain how she ended up with this album, one that she was able to tailor so specifically to her experience without it falling into pieces. Its contributing roster is grand – noting Julianna Barwick and members of the Walkmen, among others – and wildly disproportionate to the sparse, singular music played on a record as home-grown as Because I Was in Love.

All this is to say that in Tramp Van Etten found the sort of catharsis that only rock music can afford. Grimes, another revelation of 2012, spoke to Spin about the intensity of her track “Oblivion”, a song about experiencing sexual assault, and how converting those fears to music was a good thing. Turning to music with Tramp may have done the same letter-burning trick for Van Etten, and with Demos, it’s easy to see that process developing. It seems to have been released pointedly for that reason, a way to tabulate Tramp against what it once was, songs meandering and bare without the right style in which to unleash them. Rock, as a backing band and as venom, is absent from Demos but for an idea growing in its songwriter’s mind, imprinted like the drum machine pulsing underneath the hush of “Magic Chords” and the sought-after climax of “All I Can”.  Beyond these slights, it seems to show that perhaps Van Etten knew where these songs were coming from rather than how they would hit, and in her traditional style, they sound as bucketed as on her debut, as if the dramatics of Tramp, the woman living out of houses but no home, have been compressed for later.

There’s a meditative pacing to Demos, ten minutes longer than its final product, that only a guitarist as fascinating in her privacy can satisfy. Van Etten’s ability to play songs in their lethargic state is a blessing, one that makes more private renditions of “Leonard” and “In Line” no less worthy without the ornate arrangements surrounding them. She sounds less like a re-envisioned rock star and more like the quiet contemplator of years gone, trying to figure out how best to express the emotions that go with Tramp and its story. “Give Out” contrasts with its blueprint starkly; its demo moves in a different direction, like an ambient meditation with its chords as muffled and resolute as a Grouper composition. It’s only on the album itself, with its lyrics now declared rather than mumbled, it reveals its upset. As a final product, Tramp is more complex than meets the eye, missives of anger and loneliness sharing space, arranged or minimised fittingly, but Demos shows that each song lives in the same headspace.
Demos marks the fulfilment of Tramp, an album richly produced to achieve its skeletal rock sound. Dessner surely helped Van Etten find a way to propel “All I Can” into an anti-heroic anthem, one she had the aphorisms for (“We all make mistakes” as good a motto for the histrionics of) but not the resources. That these songs became a fully structured rock album is, in itself, a fascinating tale: it feels like Tramp should be titled for more than just a joke about Van Etten’s long ordeal of a year, that it should stand for how far she came in turning a record of sleeping folk songs into a record more grounded musicians would dream of making. The homogenous Demos turned into a specific record with its own time and a place, but the process, captured as it came, is its own story.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/166678-sharon-van-etten-demos/