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Sharon Van Etten brings brilliant wordplay

Paul De Barros
The Seattle Times (MCT)

SEATTLE — Sharon Van Etten sings a tune called “Leonard” on her superb new album, “Tramp” (Jagjaguwar).

Named for Leonard Cohen — an avowed and not surprising influence on this brilliant, 31-year-old New Jersey singer-songwriter — it’s a breakup song, but not like any you’ve heard lately. With a dramatic structure reminiscent of Duke Ellington’s “The Blues,” Van Etten slowly crystallizes her thoughts by adding words to a kernel phrase.

“I’m bad,” she sings, over a churning, anxious beat, as if to take the blame. (“He’s smart.”)

“I’m bad at loving,” she adds, catastrophizing.

“Well, well, hell,” she reflects, having interrogated the matter, “I’m bad at loving you.”

Which, of course, doesn’t feel so bad, after all.

That’s just one example of how deftly Van Etten wields the English language. That kind of minimalist precision is all over the album.

“I work a lot with sounds based on stream of consciousness,” she explained in a phone interview last week. “I like the way it sounds, then I turn it into something that makes more sense.”

Van Etten has been turning heads since her 2009 debut album, “Because I was in Love,” which established her as an introspective but tough-minded poet of pain and desire who turns vulnerability into a species of clear-eyed strength.

Since then, her star has steadily risen. Recently showcased on National Public Radio’s “First Listen” as well as “Conan” (where she sang “Leonard”), Van Etten is currently on a national tour that will take her to the Newport Folk Festival in July.

Though her roots are acoustic, “Tramp” is a folk-rock album produced by Aaron Dressner of The National. Surprisingly, Dressner’s slow-motion reverb and swirling backgrounds sometimes bury the words, but Van Etten says she doesn’t mind.

“On first listen,” she says, “it’s nice to just soak up the sound without thinking about what it means. It’s like a relationship. Records I’ve had for years mean more to me now than they did years ago.”

On the phone, Van Etten comes across as disarmingly unpretentious and curious. She says that when she walks into a record store, she feels overwhelmed by all the albums by people she’s never heard of.

“How do you catch up?” she asks, in a tone that suggests there might actually be an answer. “I really like to know what’s going on in the world.”

She needn’t worry.

It’s the world that’s going to need to catch up to her.

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