As much as it might have faded to the background in the face of more transcendent folk releases of last year, PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake seems to be affecting, or foretelling, a certain change in the female-driven folk model with its incorporation of indie-rock influences. Laura Gibson almost rocks out on her new album, Kathleen Edwards certainly turned the volume up (albeit with a far more pop knob than Harvey’s darkness), and now Sharon Van Etten. The folk belter rides the wave of amp cords and reveals Tramp, a propulsive indie-rock inflected record that alters her staid but satiating formula to more of a half-charge forward into Brooklynite rock.
Just like Gibson or Edwards, however, Van Etten hasn’t abdicated to the Iron & Wine school of reinventing your artistic wheel. A good half of the songs here are more well-rounded folk songs—“Kevin’s,” “Give Out” and “Ask” tread the same consistent territory, only with a few more instruments. Were they indicative of the songwriting style Van Etten intended with Tramp, that development would have been wholly enough to make it a passable, if occasionally beautiful, third album. “Give Out” works especially well, building off a minor key structure that feels natural to Van Etten’s haunting voice: “I am biting my lip/as confidence is speaking to me/I loosen my grip on my palm/put it on your knee.” Her almost uncomfortable level of proximity to her listener is striking: Tramp is frequently a lament of the mistakes made in younger days, and the listener can’t help but take the blame for some of these misgivings. True to herself as ever, Van Etten’s power in the folk spectrum is her ability to drawn the listener into the narrative and elicit a separate feeling from the one she’s expressing herself.
The forays into indie rock somewhat break this intimacy, although not without their distinct pleasures. Opener “Warsaw” distinctly recalls Radiohead’s “Airbag” and doesn’t make a mockery of itself in the process. For those left wondering exactly where this tidal shift in Van Etten’s process came from, “Serpents” gives away at least the facilitator of the idea: The National’s Aaron Dessner, who served as producer on the record. The National’s brooding self-deprecation is swathed over “Serpents,” and again, it’s a testament to Van Etten that she doesn’t get too far down the rabbit hole of aping another band’s formula. Her forays into anthem are nonetheless still surprising, evoking The Bends-era Radiohead with “All I Can,” probably the least successful indie-rock test pattern Van Etten attempts.
But for all the vacillating around other people’s sounds, “I’m Wrong” affirms the belief that Van Etten knows exactly what she’s doing reinventing herself. A graceful, powerful exit song if ever there were one (even if there’s another powerful closer right after it), “I’m Wrong” buzzes with anticipation, reverb and tympani drums lifting the narrative, an imagination of Van Etten’s intense close-up mined for the most dramatic of purposes. Her voice appears from the ether behind and around the music, and the tinge of regret from the story (a tinge present in almost all of Tramp’s 12 songs) holding the rope so the balloon of grandiosity doesn’t get too far away.
In “I’m Wrong,” Van Etten manages to coerce her two somewhat similar genres together, creating something neither indie rock nor folk. Tramp veers a bit in both ways, to varying degrees of success, but “I’m Wrong” is a reminder of how eye-openingly gorgeous Van Etten could be in fully colliding her two worlds. Tramp isn’t quite there, but the journey Van Etten takes to get to such a redeeming moment is well worth it.
Sharon Van Etten – Tramp tracklist:
- “Give Out”
- “In Line”
- “All I Can”
- “We Are Fine”
- “Magic Chords”
- “I’m Wrong”
- “Joke or a Lie”