On her past albums, Sharon Van Etten explored fraught relationships and the fraught nature of the way people interact with each other. It started with something deeply personal (her debut Because I Was in Love stems from her life with an emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend) and has slowly evolved into something more universal with each subsequent album. But something interesting happened in the five years since her last album: between starting a family and pursuing new interests outside of music, Van Etten seems to have grown beyond the one-on-one dichotomy of those early records. That growth, and the reassessment of priorities that follows, is very much evident on Remind Me Tomorrow. The album casts off Van Etten’s previous work as a prelude and finds her changing things up as both a composer and a lyricist, and the result is something truly astounding.
Anxiety has been the driving force of Van Etten’s music, and while things have changed for her, that anxiety is still present on Remind Me Tomorrow. This isn’t an album about domestic bliss or celebrating fulfillment, but about how the anxieties that plague life manifest themselves in different ways as one gets older. Opener “I Told You Everything” finds Van Etten reflecting on a tumultuous life and only just realizing what she’s been through. “Seventeen” delves further into her past, looking back at the woman she used to be and wishing that she could teach her past self the lessons she would eventually learn from painful experience. The version of Sharon Van Etten we get on Remind Me Tomorrow is a person who has lived, lost, and suffered, but who has also come through the other side as a stronger person, even if they don’t quite believe it themselves.
As it stands, though, that lyrical theme wouldn’t make Remind Me Tomorrow all that much different from some of Van Etten’s previous work. However, Remind Me Tomorrow further sets itself apart from both Van Etten’s discography and from similar songwriters with its tentative embrace of electronic elements in these compositions. This isn’t to say that Van Etten has wholly embraced a drastic shift in direction; rather, her already well-honed songwriting process has been augmented with different flourishes of synthesizer and drum machine, all recorded by producer John Congleton to mesh with Van Etten’s more organic sound.
That allows Van Etten to experiment more freely (as she does on “Jupiter 4”), but it also gives her a chance to write with a more grandiose, epic sweep. This can be heard on both singles “Comeback Kid” and “Seventeen,” both of which find Van Etten sounding properly stadium-sized. While she still deals with intensely personal stuff in her lyrics, she finds here a way to make something so intimate sound big and universal. That, in turn, is what really makes Remind Me Tomorrow a triumph.
Sharon Van Etten is clearly a storyteller at heart, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that she would eventually return to music after a break that found her entering academia and taking up acting. Yet Remind Me Tomorrow doesn’t have the air of inevitability that exists in the oeuvre of some long-standing singer-songwriters. In challenging herself to break free of the sort of box that music fans (and, yes, music critics) have placed her in, Sharon Van Etten has pulled off a minor masterpiece. It’s certainly the best album of her career so far, but Remind Me Tomorrow is also quite obviously more of a jumping-off point than a culmination of any kind. Even as she ponders how she got here, Van Etten’s sights are clearly attuned towards where she’ll be heading next.