Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten has silently been dipping into the very center of independent music since 2009.
Her descent into the underground music scene began with the freedom of self-actualization and led to various collaborations with indie artists and ultimately the release of three poignant albums varying in symmetry of sound, but fundamentally floating along the same dark sea of confessional songwriting and performance.
After escaping the bedlam of an abusive relationship while at school in Tennessee, Van Etten sought refuge back home in the quiet of New Jersey suburbia. With support from her parents and encouragement from fellow musicians, she began to pursue music.
Her debut album, “Because I Was In Love,” absorbed a certain audience through fragile honesty and chilling vocals. The album was quiet but steady, the syllables of each lyrical line emphasized with double-tracked harmonies and acoustic rhythm – finger picked or lightly strummed.
In this album and in her home-recordings she sang shyly but spoke boldly, still trying to find her voice and use it loudly after so many years of keeping herself a secret. She followed this release a year later with “Epic,” a short and doleful work that struggled to stride with consistency, but still anchored its audience and showed a more courageous side of Van Etten in terms of performance.
Her sound developed over the years, in both composition and performance, as she taught herself to be okay through the therapeutic aspect of songwriting.
Now, in 2012 – two years after “Epic” – Sharon Van Etten sneers through a confident backstroke and calls it “Tramp” – whose official release date was Feb. 7 on Jagjaguwar Records.
Beginning with the trickling clatter of “Warsaw,” “Tramp” tells us to sit down and pay attention – and Van Etten is serious this time.
She no longer drifts along the dark coast of melodic consciousness or flounders in the uncertainty of musical composition, but rather plunges into the clouded depths of the incurable curse of human sorrow.
She follows with a more familiar-sounding track, “Give Out,” where she reflects on the past (“It’s not because I always hold on / it might be because I always hold out”) and breaks away to the present.
In an interview with Baeblemusic, she says, “This song is kind of about the struggles with moving to New York City and loving and hating it at the same time … tying it in with a love story.”
Other tracks on the album include “We Are Fine,” featuring Zach Condon of Beirut, calming us all down from the stresses and panics of life, saying, “It’s okay to feel/ everything is real” and with the repeated mantra of “I’m all right”; and “Ask,” where Van Etten admits that sometimes it just “hurts too much to laugh,” still reflecting on the past.
“Tramp” does not stray from self-reflection and love stories. It dives into murky waters, focusing on autobiographical situations and emotions such as mistrust and anger, despair and detachment, and trying to get over each of those … somehow.
The album features artists such as Julianna Barwick, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner and Condon, among many others. They stand behind her and next to her, addressing and filling the emptiness that surrounded many of the songs on her previous records.
“Tramp” still echoes the same downhearted message, but it does so with a different outlook and more creative control.
On Jan. 29, NPR’s online music capsule featured an exclusive first listen of “Tramp,” relieving fans of the anticipation that was created after her single, “Serpents,” was released in November 2011.
There has already been a lot of buzz around the album from satisfied fans. The album delivers the taunting waves of “Serpents,” as well as some calmer waters.
Van Etten may not have it all figured out yet after first floating out to sea in 2009, but by now she has an audience, a message and a newfound voice to sing it in.