Sharon Van Etten is a stained glass masterpiece onstage—handfuls of broken pieces carefully fixed into an intricate puzzle. Elegant as this display may be, Van Etten still looks like she could shatter at any moment. Van Etten showed at the Metro on Nov. 6, 2012, that she could tie herself together by the heartstrings to put on a spectacle of emotional cleansing.
The release of Van Etten’s critically acclaimed third album Tramp signified much more than a developing friendliness with the mainstream airwaves. It was a sign that Van Etten was embracing anger, an emotion she once wrote off as a fault. But now she understands it, embraces it—and she’s never sounded so good.
Following Damien Jurado’s wispy opening set, a modest-sized crowd became absorbed in haphazard chatter. But they soon regained a sharpened focus when Van Etten took the stage in a muted gray sweater and flanks of brunette hair curtaining her face. Van Etten began with “Ask,” a droning ballad with stark imagery with lyrics like, “let’s find something that can last like cigarette ash, the world is collapsing around me.” A glimmering backdrop displayed a snow flurry with pine trees poking through thick sheets of the barren whiteout. The set progressed with a beefed up version of “Peace Signs.” A hefty kick drum line slapped a heft of flesh onto the mild number.
The set switched dynamics with Van Etten’s backing band evacuating the stage leaving Van Etten alone with nothing but an acoustic guitar and her introspective gaze as she began “Save Yourself.” The song showed another side of Van Etten—organic, maybe not as intriguing, but surely genuine. The band returned to deliver some incredibly reworked renditions of once-minimalist songs adorned with falsetto breaks, percussion fills and soaring harmonies with her backing vocalist. The reworking sometimes transcended the originals, but others shrank beneath the shadow of its original.
Van Etten was impressively in-tune with the crowd, quickly crafting a rapport and developing inside jokes with the crowd reflected the intimacy and relatability of her music. Van Etten seemed sisterly, cracking her sheepish grins and exacting a tone as if trying to satisfy her parents with a passing grade in geometry.
She abruptly shifted from casual crowd banter by welcoming the spirit of “the love of her life,” Christian, with weepie “Give Out.”
“Magic Chords” pulled a dreamy Van Etten onstage with Autoharp in hand. The backdrop depicted a glittery New Orleans bourgeois soiree. Some sound problems led to a wide-eyed Van Etten combatting like a coolheaded—albeit emotionally ransacked—champ. Brief hiccups like these showed a strengthened Van Etten, a woman who has obviously overcome the insecurity she still so rawly recollects in her songs.
The set continued in an emotive vein when Van Etten performed an album-less demo, “Tell Me,” solo. It was one of the most emotional deliveries that showcased Van Etten’s impressive range and hidden vocal strength. Van Etten continued the emotional chiseling lyrics with the verse, “Tell me that I’m something that you just don’t love/Tell me that I’m somewhere you don’t want to go/Tell the I’m someplace you don’t want to know.”
Van Etten continued to hammer out the tearjerkers with cuts from deep back in her catalog. “Broken Down” was overwhelmed by loud, ghostly moans, “and you want to do it,” in the background. While these technical nuances may have been Van Etten’s attempt at giving her work new life, but her soft-spoken laments became jumbled and overwhelmed. Later in the set Van Etten worked in her most aggressive piece, “Serpents,” a self-satisfyingly acidic cut off Tramp.
While new arrangements gave her songs new meaning, it was the brief glimpses into Van Etten’s personal hardship that redefined her emotionally pin-pricking catalog. The show was not so much Van Etten battling her tender folk past and her brewing temper, but a consolidation of an emotionally battered woman’s past and her upright, prevailing stance today.