Sharon Van Etten: Demos

In Tramp Van Etten found the sort of catharsis that only rock music can afford. These early recordings show her thoughts not yet turned to scorn, and with their own fascinting privacy.

Sharon Van Etten


Label: Jagjaguwar
US Release Date: 2012-11-13
UK Release Date: 2012-11-09

“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.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.