Music Reviews

Sharon Van Etten Tramp

(Jagjaguwar) Rating - 8/10

Last May, early May, it was an exceptionally cold afternoon in Brooklyn, New York where I've been living for a while now, and where I was attempting to enjoy the company of my kiwi girlfriend's old friends from west Auckland – two massively built rugby players and one already-20-year-old-with-gray-hair artist of sorts – attempting because I couldn't think of anything worthwhile to talk to them about, (sports? Baseball? The Yankees?) and as a result, I ended up saying nothing to them – not a word – despite being in their company for a collective total of more than twenty four hours. On this exceptionally cold afternoon, we five were dining in the backyard of a Mexican restaurant called Castro's, drinking Coronas and eating burritos, tacos and quesadillas. I remember gazing in horror at the goosebumps on my triceps. The gray-haired one paid for my meager meal of nachos with refried beans on top (no guac). And on the way back, I'm pretty sure I saw Sharon Van Etten. Walking alone in an orange dress. With sandals on.

An e-mail correspondence commenced the next day. I went to her website, sharonvanetten dot com, and clicked on the “contact” tab, gulped, and found, at the bottom, a generic form to contact her, with a nota bene: Please understand that while I do read these emails, I am not able to respond to every message that I get. My message asked, in the most un-stalkerish manner possible: which neighborhood in Brooklyn do you live in? She responded three weeks later, writing, “I am floating around right now, trying to find my place.”

Our correspondence has been sporadic and fleeting, and I could give No Ripcord all the jpeg screenshots of it, but to avoid the tedious task of finding the e-mails, clicking on them, enlarging them, pressing command shift 4 and creating perfectly cropped shots, instead I will say two things 1) I'm happy, beyond happy, that I even got a response and 2) in late September (September 28th, to be exact) Sharon e-mailed me, telling me that she had just finished her new record, and that it would be out in February. And now, it's February and I've already listened to Tramp several times, and just recently, watched her perform (online) “Serpents” on Jimmy Fallon.

Sharon not only has longer hair and wears lipstick – making her look beyond elegant – her style (call it symbolism, essence, meat-n-potatoes or what have you) has readjusted its purposes. When music critics say so-and-so has matured, they want to avoid explaining, tracking down, and capturing in words the feeling of something going on behind the music that affects the singer-songwriter in emotional ways, ways capable of being transmitted into sound, into lyrics, into the simple act of growing your hair longer, putting on lipstick and making a record.

There are people who don't think that life happens between records, but their belief is as empty as the caveat emptor that told them so. What I'm trying to say is this: Sharon doesn't need to put herself at stake anymore. She knows herself. She knows how far she can go; she knows how to push her music, how to control her songs, how to colour them, sometimes evenly, sometimes unevenly, she knows how to embellish one with a ukulele, or a country slide, she even knows how to sing a duet (with Zach Condon!) without sounding overwhelmingly and uncontrollably cheesy. Tramp isn't as seizing as Epic, its songs aren't as dense and unalike, its textures don't diverge in the same methods, but it breathes more, it quivers more, it shakes, it overturns itself, it rusts. Comparing both records is thinking about the song of a youthful house wren versus that of an older one. Though both are melodious, there's something about the older that absorbs more, sparked simply by habit. By knowing the same habitat. By changing its habitat, changing where it lives, how it sees, how it react to things. And if a bird can do that, Sharon can too.

And that is what Tramp represents as a piece of music. The dark lyrics that collide with the major harmonies, the sweet moods that pulse back into tense bass lines, the way her smoked voice tilts up when she holds a note, as if barely suspended by invisible ledger lines inside her throat. Her emotions as those invisible ledger lines, as invisible tornadoes that resolve themselves, somewhere – nowhere? In stubble fields of no tone. Each song a different emotion leading to the same out-door, where the voice & the body are finally separated from the mind, but only after they've traveled through the language of it, only when the final syllable drops away, echoed through a fade-out, do we by then know that there's no body or voice there anymore. That there is no such thing as confession, or the confessional, only the shaky, unreliable equation between what is sung and what is life. What we think is maturity when it really is control: controlled artifice, controlled form structures, controlled & welcomed seepage filtered by certain ditchpipes, and for birds who sing, control of territories, indicated by the invisibility of bird notes.

And what is Tramp but the expansion of territory, of how to sing in it's new borders? How to celebrate. How to throw yourself magically in a border, and stay in there, and not want to get out. To crawl inside there and set up a sleeping-bag. To touch the border and enlarge it. Singing both acts as the resurrection of memory and the death of it, at the site of her lyrics, in her melodies, her instrumentation – even in the repetition of the same instrumentation, the same melodies, the same lyrics night after night after night.

They say now that Sharon found a place in Ditmas Park, a neighborhood I've never been to and know next-to-nothing about. They say her couch-surfing days are over. But those days can still open like pores, like holes, for they are still porous. They are still pockets – pockets recorded into song and sculpted back into a map, a chord structure, the memory of sleeping somewhere and what came afterward. These the same holes can inflate through the eyes of being played live. Which is what Sharon does so well, her voice even smokier and submerged in fogless focus. And then there is the afterwards, when the next day comes, and how Sharon's life becomes rearranged, only to throw itself back together again, in a different landscape, in a different mood.