Tramp by Sharon Van Etten
Sharon Van Etten’s voice is one that stands out among her singer-songwriter contemporaries—its haunting quality leaves listeners hanging on every word she sings. Her chilling vocals get under your skin; they snatch your attention, refuse to be ignored and compel you to hear what she is saying. They are strong without becoming forceful.
On Van Etten’s previous releases, the Brooklyn singer-songwriter conveyed the vulnerability of her lyrics with a sort of bruised charm, creating emotive pieces that were capable of leaving devastating impressions, such as on the track “Love More” off her 2010 release Epic. For her third release, Tramp, Van Etten strives to make a bolder record in every sense. The cover art, a grainy black and white photo, stands in stark contrast to the delicate prints of her previous releases, and even the title of the album is one that calls attention to itself, especially when put next to her first two albums (Because I Was in Love and Epic).
The production on Tramp is augmented with a dramatic increase in instrumentation. Some of the changes in Van Etten’s sound can be attributed to the collaborations that permeate the album. She recorded Tramp with Aaron Dessner, member of the indie-rock group The National, at his studio, and she allowed Dessner to use his established connections in the independent music scene to entice an impressive ensemble to play on the record. Guests include Zach Condon of Beirut, Wye Oak’s Jen Wasner, The Walkmen’s frontman Matt Barrick, and vocalist Julianna Barwick. The number of performers featured on this record have helped Van Etten to evolve in the way she records her customarily deeply personal songs. On Tramp, she has removed the restraint responsible for making earlier work such affecting pieces of music; however, the tracks on Tramp have not lost emotional bite.
“All I Can” places Van Etten’s lyrics about striving to rid herself from troubling memories of a past relationship on a bed of gradually building instrumentation that erupts to intensify her final self-comforting phrase, “We all make mistakes.” In many ways this album carries themes over from where Van Etten last left listeners on “Love More”(her second release’s closer). The drone of the harmonium in that track returns on Tramp, especially on “Leonard” where the expansive atmosphere created by the drone paves the way for the ascending vocal melody to take control of the piece, and she implements other forms of drone tonalities, such as keyboard tones and guitar feedback.
The power of the lasting effects of emotionally abusive relationships is an idea repeated often on Tramp. The masterfully crafted “Give Out” shows that past failed attempts at love have caused Van Etten to be unable to fully commit to new relationships. These uncertainties about new love give way to doubt, and she proclaims that it causes her to “give out” on supporting relationships.
Although the collaborative approach taken during the recording of Tramp has many positive effects on Van Etten’s songs, there are instants where the increased production restricts her vocals from taking the creative, melodic paths that are present on previous work. Overall, Tramp represents growth in Van Etten’s ability to adapt. The change in her sound shows a sonic evolution that a vast majority of artists pegged as sing-songwriters lack, and this record continues to push Van Etten out of the crowd of her contemporaries and into the spotlight her artistry deserves. After a record that displays such striking differences in her discography, it is uncertain where Van Etten will go next in her career, but listeners will definitely be following her haunting voice to find out where it leads.
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