It’s been a while since a female singer has hit the right note between folk and bluesy alternative rock. Although recognised and deservedly lauded on Folk Radio UK, Sharon Van Etten has been bobbing under the radar in the wider music press for some time.
Having previously sung with the likes of The Antlers and The National, Van Etten has invited her own guest collaborators on Tramp – her third studio album. Matt Barrick (The Walkmen), Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman), Zach Condon (Beirut), Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak) and Julianna Barwick all make appearances whilst The National’s Aaron Dessner Produces.
Tramp was recorded while Van Etten was essentially homeless (hence the title), laying down tracks in the garage studio of Dessner in between touring and sofa surfing.
It features a wide range of instruments to create a lush, richer soundscape to previous acoustic led work. Finally, here is a torch singer who delivers enough grit-soaked beauty for these austere times. Her voice is what draws you in, floating and pretty with enough rasp to lend weight and experience to her songs of lament, loss and learning.
Lyrically the songs are permeated with this sense of searching and the resulting life lessons. In ‘Magic Chords’ Van Etten declares ‘You’ve got to lose, sometimes’, and in ‘Ask’ she admits ‘Like cigarette ash the world is collapsing around me – let’s try to do the best we can’. And in the gorgeous Ukulele backed ‘We are Fine’ (a song about panic attacks) she seeks to reassure herself alongside guest vocalist Zach Condon: ‘Tell me not to trip or to lose sight. You are walking in my guided light, take my hand and help me not to shake, say I’m alright. I’m alright.’ These are hard-earned mantras for the soul.
Naturally, 14 months of continual change has permeated the style of each song musically too. ‘Warsaw’ has a muddy bluesy guitar sound whilst ‘Serpents’ is saturated with thumping drum beats and echoing slide guitars, a throwback to early Breeders or Mazzy Star. The stunning ‘Give Out’ is pared down, with little more than an acoustic guitar to showcase that haunting wonderful voice.
Clearly, Sharon Van Etten has been on a journey, but with ‘Leonard’ appearing on BBC 6Music’s playlist this week, it sounds like she’s finally arrived.
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