Review Summary: Attention all lovelorn miserablists!
Her work may have passed largely under the radar to date, but there can be no doubting that Brooklyn songwriter Sharon Van Etten has assembled an impressive assortment of admirers. Indeed it would be rather easy to mistake the credits for this third LP as a roll call of modern indie royalty, with Justin Vernon, Sufjan Stevens and every member of The National receiving nods among many others, while the latter’s Aaron Dessner also handles production duties. Critics will no doubt argue that such name checking equates to little more than a well-connected promotional ploy, but upon repeat listening to Tramp
it becomes clear that she's gathered such an illustrious book of contacts purely through artistic merit.
There's no point in fluttering around the matter; this is in no way a happy record. Constructed overwhelmingly around lyrical content, it focuses on the various troubles of its makers’ personal life, namely the abrupt end of a turbulent relationship and ensuing homelessness, which persisted throughout the recording process. Given the severity of those issues, you’d perhaps expect refrains with a little more insight than “I am bad, at loving you
” and “the world was ***ty then
,” but the genuine and sincere qualities of Van Etten’s delivery are enough to ensure that these relatively simple words carry just as much weight as their more revealing counterparts. With the record being perpetually mid-paced, the issues at hand tend to be tackled from a purely pragmatic perspective, with Van Etten focusing on reflection as opposed to merely going on the offensive. ‘Serpents’ is a notable exception to this pattern, but although that adds a little venom to proceedings, this is a record that tends to seek the full picture, and if that means hard truths and self-loathing, then so be it.
With such emphasis placed on Van Etten’s vocals and lyrics, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the actual songs come secondary, but in reality there are moments here worthy of gracing the very beast heartbreak albums. The aforementioned ‘Serpents’ is arguably the record’s most accessible cut, but those who look past instant satisfaction will find even greater treats within Tramp
’s twelve tracks. ‘All I Can’ for instance spends much of its duration building upon a steady but unspectacular start, eventually transforming into an item of true magnificence which probably marks the most ambitious foray here. ‘Give Out’ and ‘Leonard’ meanwhile take a more direct approach, making use of choruses which wield a brief yet devastating emotional punch, while an even more potent moment rears it’s head in the shape of a truly inspired guest appearance from Beirut mainman Zach Condon on 'We Are Fine.' Such collaborations often seem forced and add little to the song in question, but this is the polar opposite, with his wistful, mourning verse elevating what is already the album's most beautiful song to an entierly new level.
Such immense songcraft isn’t evident on every number here, but even in the less remarkable corners the overriding emotional journey provides more than enough to keep things ticking along nicely, with the piece as a whole tending to impress even more than it's individual songs. It’s not the most immediate record, and may take a quartet of listens before spilling it’s wonders, but once that barrier has been surpassed, Tramp
reveals itself as an thoroughly absorbing body of work whilst also boasting a wealth of replay value. It does perhaps lack that little sprinkling of mojo which might just have rendered something of a modern classic, but is nevertheless a fine achievement which should propel its maker well beyond the cult status that she currently adheres to.