By Sharon Van Etten
I first saw Sharon Van Etten in May of last year at Brudenell Social Club in Leeds and was really blown away by the raw sincerity and emotion that she put into her songs. Wanting to know if any of this translated into the recorded version of the album she was touring, I got her album from the merch stall at the back and waited to see if she'd come to the stall and sign it, sadly to no avail. However on the upside her album did very much mirror what I'd heard live, and I always feel the true test of how good an album is, is how well it is translated or changed for the road. This album also topped my albums of 2012 and this review should just about highlight why.
This is Sharon's third album and is far more accomplished and assured than either 'Because I was in Love' or 'Epic' and most people would agree its a step forward. This album is also heavy on collaborations first and foremost is Aaron Dessner from The National who features on the album and also produced it at his garage studio, giving the album a semi-low-fi feel that suits it far more than any glossy over-production ever could. Other features include Beirut's Zach Condon, Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner and the drummer form The Walkmen. Far from giving the album a disjointed feel, all the collaborations not only add something different to every song and almost give the songs some assurance, a bit like friends helping Sharon through the process.
The album starts with three relatively rocky songs by this album's standards, Warsaw, Serpents and Give Out. All three are very solid songs, 'Serpents' providing a good lead single while 'Give Out' is one of my personal favourites from the album, however afterwards the album looses this assurity. It meanders, drifts and looses the structure and convictions of the earlier songs, but this is what makes the album great, the lack of the conviction and rigid structure, reliance on riffs or big choruses show how genuine some of the songs are. On the subject of how genuine the songs are, Sharon seems to tread the thin line between bluntness and artistic licence in her songs very well, songs such as 'Leonard' 'I'm Wrong' and 'Joke Or Lie' are obviously very dear to her, and it shows in the lyrics. The song 'We Are Fine' is particularly strong as it talks about a panic attack that she had, someone who can put so much of her soul into an album and then call it 'Tramp' is someone with guts, and someone to be respected. Each song on this album paints the picture of a destructive relationship, all the subtleties of the emotions perfectly documented, a whole album dedicated to one break up really shows the power of human emotions, and makes the subject matter unable to be dismissed as trivial in any way.
Musically, the album is a different story. It can be sparse at times, almost in danger of staying into blandness but in my opinion, being just on the right side. This almost hollow feeling to some songs doesn't ruin it, the vocals and lyrics are the focal point and rightly so and more than carry the album. This album isn't perfect, nothing really is, but I don't think it's meant to be, this album is self-help, the chance to let someone lick their wounds and voice their grief and anger to the world, that deserves credit to bare your soul this openly to critical scrutiny, I doubt this, or any other review will change how Sharon Van Etten feels about her music.