Review Summary: A tense and sprawling record that delivers one emotional gut punch after another.
Sharon Van Etten seems to carry the weight of the world squarely on her shoulders. The emerging singer/songwriter laments loss throughout her third studio album, simply titled Tramp
, and displays her woes on a stark canvas consisting primarily of her own sorrow. The concept of the album is built around relationships, and even though this particular theme has been abused by just about any singer/songwriter with a guitar and feelings, Van Etten delivers a strikingly original piece that actually manages to cause the listener’s heart to ache with hers. Accented by moments of utterly breathtaking musical inspiration, Tramp
captures an artist at her most vulnerable – drenched in melancholy, yet never begging for compassion.
One of the most realistic comparisons that seem to be floating around are those that associate Tramp
with The National’s High Violet
, because both records possess a softer, more patient mentality than artists who rush to premature climaxes and attempt to sensationalize their sound. This is a record that, in all of its apparent misery, is completely comfortable where it is. The intermittent thrashing accompanying the psychedelic-leaning opener ‘Warsaw’ is neither grating nor entirely at harmony with the other instrumentation, giving listeners an accurate preview of the latent discontent that struggles to break loose for extended portions of the album. The spaced out unraveling of tracks like ‘Kevin’s’ and ‘We Are Fine’ constitute the majority of Tramp
, relying on Van Etten’s longing vocals to dictate both the mood and tempo of the album. There are moments where tensions erupt, and although they are few and far between, the build up makes them well worth the wait. The no-frills rocker ‘Serpent’ is the first such encounter, exuding angst through gritted teeth while carefully avoiding anger. Then there is ‘Leonard’, which is less of an eruption and more of a slow, controlled release. The slight upturn in Van Etten’s aura, combined with a deceptively complex interplay between pianos and drums, shows Tramp
in a new light that is rather abruptly snuffed out when the wistful drawl of ‘In Line’ commences. From front to back, this is an experience that lives on ebb and flow – and if anyone ever got it right, it was probably Sharon Van Etten on this very record.
The lyrics are also of keen interest. No emotionally overwrought album has the desired impact without memorable quotations to accompany them, whether they are sensible, haunting, or downright quirky. In Van Etten’s case, her lyrics seem to be far off in some dream – swinging and swaying with the rocking momentum of Tramp
– yet firmly implanted in the harshness of reality. “There he goes, he finally closed the door” is a line that hits particularly hard, capturing the finality of the realization that, throughout all of the trials and hardships, the relationship has actually ended. It is something we have all experienced before, and even though Van Etten never does anything resembling a plea for sympathy, she will most assuredly get it anyway. There is also the bluntness of her ending to ‘Leonard’, in which she proclaims, “I am bad at loving you”, a simple line that is absolutely packed with meaning. By the time Tramp
reaches its final song, Sharon sounds exhausted, downtrodden…defeated. “My hands are getting tired” sums up her state rather succinctly, while cautiously leaving the door open for love with the sly verse, “I am alone…but I am alone in this room with you.” Perhaps even the bleakest skies have a silver lining.
As a whole, Sharon Van Etten really hits the nail on the head with her third try. Tramp
takes the best qualities of her prior releases and mixes it in with entirely new influences to create something wholly refreshing – albeit depressing. Weaknesses are scarce, but can most likely be found in the album’s unrelenting glumness and homogeneous rhythm. There aren’t many shakeups or surprises, but for what it is, the music is executed almost flawlessly. Those looking for one of the year’s early gems should afford their ears the opportunity to fall upon the impassioned Tramp