Music Reviews
epic Ten

Sharon Van Etten epic Ten

(Ba Da Bing Records) Rating - 7/10

The most incredible moment on Sharon Van Etten’s epic can easily pass a listener by. With audio panned to either side, wearing headphones, it’s possible to hear Van Etten completely alone on Love More. She begins with one long note while telling the story of a relationship’s darkest moment, pausing for enough time for a listener to tense—and yet she’s never sounded as clear or confident. 

After the mumbling and hesitation from her debut album Because I Was In Love, Love More is patient and reassuring, a powerful refrain about allowing people to help you rebuild when you’ve been reduced to nothing. The songwriter has been frank about the circumstances that led to this album, mostly written in her parent’s basement as she started again in the wake of a toxic relationship. Epic’s seven songs document the realization that something needs to change, and then mustering the courage to be the one to make it.

Epic isn’t Sharon Van Etten’s most well known album. It was released to lukewarm praise, and most fans would probably point to any of the three full-lengths that followed as their favorite. And yet, epic is the record that warrants re-evaluation a decade on, given just how pivotal of a moment is within her life and career. In 32 minutes, Van Etten’s emotions and conflict and rarely about reconciliation—and yet she remains hopeful. In the first half, there are moments of resilience (On Peace Signs, especially) but it remains starkly despondent. The arc only begins to turn to poignant on Don’t Do It, the album’s noisy moment of clarity where Van Etten realizes the relationship can never be repaired ('I wanted to find out why you’re hiding, I was tired of the fight').

Bringing in the wider community of artists she’s worked with in the decade since, and those who she’s inspired, epic Ten breathes a new life into the songs—but it also means that the thread is lost.  There’s no clear tossing and turning as each artist makes an impression with their three minutes. Opener A Crime, covered by Big Red Machine (Aaron Dessner, Justin Vernon), sounds frustrated and beefed-up rather than brittle and tired. IDLES’ version of Peace Signs is more self-affirming, and despite the unlikely union, it sounds like a fully-realized version—especially considering the sound of Van Etten’s most recent record Remind Me Tomorrow. The words are the same on Courtney Barnett and Vagabon’s Don’t Do It, though on this one, it sounds like Barnett is calling the partner’s bluff rather than getting into a heated argument. St. Panther's version of One Day is a revelation, with clean breezy pop replacing the lethargic pull of the original. For an album so private and hushed, a listener could have spent a decade projecting their own emotions onto the work, so it does feel insightful to hear someone else record theirs.

There are also more down-the-line covers. Lucinda Williams is the perfect artist to cover Save Yourself, with her no-shit delivery of 'Don’t you think I know, you’re only trying to save yourself?', while Shamir’s cover of DSharpG may not explore much new ground but it feels like a modern reimagining. Then there’s Fiona Apple’s version of Love More, which—just as with the original—completely dominates the album that precedes it. The song has been well-covered in the past decade, with artists stripping back more and more layers. Here, Apple recasts it completely. There is that bitterness and anger - Apple sounds like she’s scowling as she sings ‘you were high, as I was doomed’ - but it soon becomes warm and welcoming, as they reach the arms of a friend. Despite its mournful reputation, Van Etten has always described it as one of her more uplifting songs and Apple’s cover shifts the focus in a particularly powerful way. 

There are plenty of illusions of hope throughout epic, but it’s Love More that makes you believe it. And if that has been clouded in the past, Apple’s version unlocks the more hopeful reading. As a writer, it showed that Van Etten was more than just the tragic circumstances that led to her picking up a guitar, and its disarming vulnerability gave listeners some comfort. epic is likely not Van Etten’s most recognizable album—and this covers album sacrifices much of what makes it great—but it is the one that deserves celebrating. The original was Etten taking tentative first steps to collaborate, while this album sees her pass on the songs completely. It’s a fitting legacy for an album that’s about moving on stronger, but not without forgetting about the heartache it took to get there.