Is She Really Going Out with Him?
Sharon Van Etten's impressive debut album, Because I Was in Love, wore a title that was an answer to a question: why did you stay with him? A suite of songs unbroken in its sorrow, the album found Van Etten —in her glorious, doleful, honeyed voice— singing naught but sad, slow songs, all written when Van Etten was stuck in a destructive relationship.
Yet, for all the bravery of the text, the songs were at times opaque; their words evocative in indirect ways. A key to the narrative came with "I Fold," whose tale of a spiritual/emotional/psychological breakdown found Van Etten referencing "the basement where [she] sang"; a location that spoke loudly of a life lived as prisoner. Yet it was just a glimpse into the heartache, one fragmented image shining clear. Because I Was in Love was an album more about the way Van Etten sung the words —the way she stretched vowels and rolled syllables, exploring every nuance of their sound— than the lyrics; which were evocative as sung, but not the sharpest text.
Two things have changed with Van Etten's even-more-impressive second album, Epic. Firstly, the album features a far greater variety of musical moods. Secondly, its lyrics are now sharp as a tack. And, even better, these things work hand-in-hand.
On "Love More," as Nico-esque harmonium gasps wheeze and splutter, Van Etten diagnoses herself with a kind of relationship Stockholm syndrome: tied to the bed, chained like a dog, growing ever more in love as the hours/days/years pass. On "Save Yourself," as Nashville-esque dollops of sinuous pedal steel and saloon piano are piled on, Van Etten delivers its barbed refrain —"don't you think I know/you're only trying to save yourself"— with somewhat of a smirk. On "One Day," as the songstress strums and pick-up piano and shuffling drums drape her in Laurel Canyon-like languor, she turns playful, and mocking, its refrain —"if you don't leave me now/do you love me back?"— making it sound like a love-song, even when it's anything but.
The tunes are bright and winning enough that their dark subtext could be lost; but the tenor of the set —and its confessional bent— is set on the opening gambit, "A Crime." Just Van Etten and some lusty acoustic-guitar strums, it's the most singer-songwritery type song, but there's a sense of danger that rises it beyond the sad-girl-with-guitar archetypes. Again, Van Etten is "alone in the basement where [she] will write these songs," singing the things she could never dare say.
Across the rest of Epic, there's a feeling of courage won; "Save Yourself" and "One Day" daring to mock a man who, at other times, is pure captor. That sense of courage and conviction plays off the field, too: Van Etten, once a painfully shy performer, clearly having grown in confidence. Rather than confessionalist lost in catharsis, frightened to be singing such ugly sentiments, she now seems like a songwriter in total command of her craft, never to be bowed again.
Record Label: Ba-Da-Bing!
Release Date: October 5, 2010