Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten appears to be the classic example of a solo artist allowed the time and space to develop. Her first two albums, particularly the excellent Epic, attracted superlatives from a small coterie of dedicated journalists and bloggers. With her third album, produced by Aaron Dessner from The National (the artists behind musicOMH’s album of the year 2010), she is poised to reach a much larger audience.
Dessner and his brother Bryce contribute to the album musically. Whilst they certainly do much to enrich the sound, it’s satisfying that Tramp is as stark and personal as any of Van Etten’s previous efforts. Her voice remains centre-stage and these candid confessionals are direct and disarming. The boldly titled Tramp comes across as something of a feminine counterpart to The Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen – a brave and excoriating depiction of sexual misdemeanours, mistakes and regrets.
Some moments here do veer into the more predictable end of indie-rock territory. The anthemic single Serpents for example, has an insistent, chugging arrangement reminiscent of post-Funeral Arcade Fire. Whilst its lovely vocal lines just about elevate it away from banality – it may be the least curious moment on an album that is otherwise thoughtful and imaginative.
Van Etten is much more assured when she concocts her curious blend of mesmeric sound and American songwriting tradition. On the patient, restrained Kevin’s she shares haunting, hypnotic and reverb-soaked qualities with the likes of Cortney Tidwell or Neko Case. These singer-songwriters have all found compelling, individual takes on the acoustic folk-tinged sound and Van Etten is tantalisingly close to joining their ranks.
Just occasionally, she veers a little too close to the sound of one of her peers. Leonard, although undeniably lovely, combines marching drumming, mandolins and unashamedly soaring melodies in a way that can only recall Beirut. It’s no surprise then to find Zach Condon himself taking on guest vocal duties on We Are Fine. Van Etten’s slightly breathy, mysterious voice and Condon’s exaggerated, bawdy yodel make for a peculiar but powerful combination.
For all the angsty revelations on Tramp, there’s also an overriding sense of positivity. It sometimes risks bordering on cliche, but there’s little doubt it will help Van Etten broaden her appeal. On a song like All I Can, it seems as if Van Etten is looking to push all the right indie buttons – but there always seems to be a rawness and austerity to her music that keeps her in check.
Perhaps a track such as Magic Chords, which strips out the regular, metric guitar strumming in favour of eerie, sustained keyboard chords and marching drumming points the way to a bright future. This suggests that there is potential for an edgier, more original album to come from Van Etten – but the combination of Dessner’s rich production and arrangements and Van Etten’s distinctive vocal character has real presence.