Unless you’re closely attuned to the community of emotionally literate New York musicians who ride their hearts into battle, you might not have heard of [a]Sharon Van Etten[/a]. The New Jersey-born artist has sung with [a]The Antlers[/a] and [a]The National[/a], and released her first record, ‘Because I Was In Love’, in 2009. Her second, ‘Epic’, arrived in 2010. Both concerned a five-year relationship with an abusive ex who would break her instruments and tell her she wasn’t good enough to be a musician.
Thankfully, no-one agreed – particularly [a]Bon Iver[/a]’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner, who covered ‘Love More’ from ‘Epic’ at a festival. A series of emails between Sharon and Aaron ensued, and he offered to produce her next album, ‘Tramp’. Her face looms from the cover in monochrome, in homage to John Cale’s 1974 album ‘Fear’. Whereas that often signifies a hackneyed attempt at fresh starts, Van Etten avoids obvious cliché.
The perspectives on the soaring, steely ‘Warsaw’ and mandolin brightness of ‘Leonard’ are conflicted between desire and trust. The triumphant ‘All I Can’ crests on a country-indebted vocal, while she’s spiteful on the tense, artillery-drummed ‘Serpents’, hissing, “You enjoy… sssucking on dreams/So I will fall asleep with someone other than you”. The sadness returns on ‘In Line’, a heartbreakingly sombre, heavy meditation where she confesses, “When you were on my side/The world was shitty then”, but as she repeatedly cries “in line”, the intensity of her voice breaks free of rank and restraint.
In recent years, it has been a joy to see Van Etten growing in confidence as an artist – and this isn’t just her finest album, but one of early 2012’s best. She won’t remain under the radar much longer.