There’s so much I want to say to Sharon Van Etten while I’m listening to Tramp, her latest album. Most of it’s condescending, but, trust me, it comes from a good place, like: Hey, Sharon, you need to ditch that no-good man. You know, they now have good medicine for panic attacks. Keep away from the studio — and Aaron Dessner — and just stick to your guitar. Maybe it’s time to stop singing about boyfriends and breakups, and start writing about stuff like urban crime or the environment.
I have no right to make these demands, and I’m a little embarrassed by their paternalistic tone. In fact, I love the new album and I think Van Etten’s music — with its muscular blend of coolness, commitment, and melodic beauty — may be just the thing to cure us of our Lana Del Rey blues. Still, I find myself nearly overwhelmed by her romantic subject matter and the intense intimacy of its delivery. I am often even startled, like one of her own ex-lovers, by the aggression of her revelations — hence, my defensiveness. Her personality can smother her own musicality, leaving the listener little room to breathe, let alone listen — ego and anxiety everywhere get in the way of sonic experience.
And yet if Van Etten’s work is full of demands, this is precisely what makes it interesting. While she pours out all the betrayals and abandonments that make up her love biography, my initial, rather superficial responses are replaced by a set of deeper, more anxious questions: Why is this person telling me all this, and why is she singing about it? Am I supposed to respond to her struggle? To her pain? How can she expect me to change anything? What can I say? How can saying matter? What can my own voice do in response to this other, more formidable — uncaring, unhearing — voice?
Here, perhaps, the experience of Tramp makes good on its major themes. The aggressive push and pull of love’s last gasp becomes a decent metaphor for the way in which Etten’s voice can fill your head and then walk out the door. Everywhere, the album forces you to confront your own difficult relationship to this voice and its brutal honesty, leaving you by turns bruised, vengeful, and concerned. Van Etten opens with her best rendition of Liz Phair, howling, ”you, you, its all you”: it’s a gorgeously passive-aggressive moment, both a startling command and a devious disavowal of power. But while one song forces you to back up, the next has you leaning in. On the second track, Van Etten sings about giving up and giving out, leaving the listener grasping at each breathy word as it fades, frustratingly, into the next. Of course, singer-songwriters have been mixing up lovers and listeners for years, and it’s hard not to scoff at the quaintness of Van Etten’s devices. Still, there’s an astounding power in her voice, and perhaps more than any performer working today, Van Etten pushes the ethical dimensions of this tension and confusion — of singing to someone who is both more and less than a listener. On the last track, a marvelously clear-eyed hymn to love’s impending end, Van Etten sings, “I am alone in this room with you/ Call it a joke or a lie.” It’s impossible to hear that line and not want to make good on the album as a whole, to affirm Van Etten and her lyrical art in all its anxiety and intensity.
But while I understand why many critics want to describe Van Etten’s music as “confessional,” I reject the term for a number of reasons. For one, as an evaluative category, “confessional” tends to rank emotions over artistry; it rests on a fantasy of immediacy and authenticity that obscures the equally important work of craft and style. Secondly, the term “confessional” has a subtle way of diminishing the aesthetic achievements of specifically female artists. Such labels imply that the value of women’s work relies on its sincerity rather than its expertise, locking all their efforts within the restricted domain of the private instead of the public. Rather, I would call Van Etten’s work “lyrical” in the good sense of the term attributed to John Stuart Mill, as “overheard speech.” “The peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet’s utter unconsciousness of a listener,” Mill writes. “Poetry is feeling confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude, and embodying itself in symbols which are the nearest possible representations of the feeling in the exact shape in which it exists in the poet’s mind.” At best, Van Etten’s work is no simple outpouring of emotion, but a careful construction of vocal form, one that, in its very formalism, calls out to the listener. Its value hinges not so much on the personal battle between insecurity and confidence, but on the artistic battle to find the proper shape for her emotions. As listeners, we respond to that struggle above all else, at once drawn in and cast off by its very style, its nearly cold formalism, which, in turn, becomes a source of value and significance in itself.
Simply put, the promotional narrative that surrounds this album stinks, and does no service to either Van Etten or her art. Who needs another triumphant tale of an indie wallflower finding her girl-power confidence? There’s fascination enough in Van Etten’s struggle to place her emotions within a set of appropriate musical forms. In fact, this is why I find Van Etten’s earlier work slightly more compelling. The leaner arrangements of Because I Was in Love and Epic much more clearly revealed the struggle of a soul trying to find its proper shape. Those two efforts might have been more subdued in tone, more humble in terms of their musical reach, but they were infinitely more dynamic and more courageous — riskier, even, in terms of craft. In this, too, Van Etten’s best moments are nearly always live — momentous, fortuitous. Check out the video for “Save Yourself” from KEXP. Van Etten is awkwardly locked into a mechanical groove — the crisp strumming, the tin drumming, the long melodic lines — but everywhere that structure serves only to restrain and refine the emotional core of each song until it starts to shine with its own dark power. On Tramp, similarly, I’m partial to the least produced tracks, such as “Kevin’s” and “Ask,” where it’s the structure of the melody rather than the personality that reaches out to you and forces you to reckon with its movement and shape. “I’m Wrong” may outline the feelings of another failed relationship, but, musically, with its soaring repetitions and organ-like hum, it comes across like a majestic chorale, a testament to the value of song over self; here, Van Etten seems to contradict not only her lover, but her own tendencies as a merely “confessional” songwriter, singing, “Tell me that I’m wrong… it’s bad, it’s bad, it’s bad to believe in any song you sing, tell me this, even though you can’t believe it.”
We shouldn’t be asking if this album is authentic or not. It shouldn’t be judged on the depth or extent of its “confession.” Rather, we need to know if it works for us as music, as lyric. To sing in this way does not so much reveal the self, but stylizes it, mediates it — to show it in the process of mediation — and so the performance rises and falls on whether or not it matters or proves useful to us as an issue of craft and style. Ultimately, then, I’m disappointed in Aaron Dessner’s production, which seems misguided from start to finish. The whole album is crowded with indie influences — not just Dessner, but also The Walkmen’s Matt Barrick, Doveman’s Thomas Bartlett, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, and Beirut’s Zach Condon. But Dessner, as studio ringleader, misperceives Van Etten’s power as simply a matter of mounting force and so tries to buttress her performance (her personality) with all the layering clichés and atmospheric tricks in his indie rock playbook (”In Line” is as dreary as it gets). But some of the problem here lies with the singer herself, who, with this outing, seems to be reaching towards a bigger impact. I certainly like to see artists grow over time, but it would be a shame if Van Etten abandoned the tough, sinewy style she established in her earlier performances. On Tramp, her efforts to become more “expressive” translate into a series of copycat moves reminiscent of earlier female performers. As she recently explained to Stereogum, “I have a song I call my Sinead O’Connor song, I have a PJ Harvey song, just to generalize, but it is all over the place.” Yeah, there also seems to be a Liz Phair song, a Cat Power song, an Aimee Mann song, a Lucinda Williams song, and maybe even a Sheryl Crow song. They’re all decent, all gorgeous even, but like most fans, I really just want another album of “Sharon Van Etten” songs.
In fact, I really hope to hear a lot more from Sharon Van Etten, but not at the cost of her indie canonization, and I wonder how the music business can sustain such acts otherwise. At any rate, I love the demands raised by her voice, and if I’ve taken liberties with this review, it’s only because her album is all about taking liberties, making mistakes, saying and not saying all the things that couldn’t, and maybe shouldn’t, be said. One of the pleasures of pop music is that it allows you the luxury of relationships that don’t exist, and I won’t be letting go of this one — for all its aggression and sloppiness — any time soon.