Review Summary: Breathing life into lifeless spaces.
Sharon Van Etten's epic
is the best album ever made. Not 'objectively', or whatever, but once I'm waist deep in the album's intoxicating, speech-defying, utterly unique world it's all the same to me. Without fail, around the point where "Dsharpg" gets its hooks in me, I stop making qualifications or trying to force objectivity: for the next 20 minutes this will be the greatest album ever made, and I'm very okay with it.
"It would seem that when a song is set free into the world, it becomes everyone's, and anyone's." Those are Adrianne Lenker's words for the epic Ten
re-release, and while I told myself to lean on subjectivity here, one could certainly do worse than having Adrianne goddamn
Lenker write liner notes for a tribute where Fiona goddamn
Apple is covering your best song. Lenker is right, of course - music is an entirely personal experience, a complex chemistry between song and individual and time and place that will never quite be the same with any of those variables changed. Like Fiona Apple taking the borderline spiritual event of "Love More", one of the most bruisingly personal pieces of music ever made, and gently making it her own. Like Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner cutting their most raw recording in years in deference to the original "A Crime". Like me, surrending myself to "Dsharpg" with no reservations every time. The best music is something you and I will never hear quite the same, or even be able to fully explain to one another, and Sharon Van Etten makes the best music on the fucking planet.
As is the way with covers albums, there's plenty on epic Ten
I find misses the mark. It absolutely rests on Big Red Machine and Fiona Apple's heavy lifting with the bookends; IDLES and Courtney Barnett deliver fine but uninspiring retreads of the originals, whereas more electronic indie-pop renderings of "Dsharpg" and "One Day" absolutely pale in comparison. That's fine, though. They're out in the world now, for anyone who wants to claim them, and I will always have the original album, which is frankly what I'm actually writing about in this review. It's a nice opportunity to look back. epic
is essential to me, and seeing musicians of a certain calibre drawn to the sometimes thankless task of covering it tells me that epic
is essential to many other people too. Again, folks, Fiona Apple dropped in on this party – must be something here worth celebrating, yeah?
What I'm driving at is that epic
is truly one of a kind, even if its constituent parts don't sound groundbreaking in isolation. Take the first two songs, solid indie rock tunes which make their point (including one of indie's truly great first-line kiss-offs, "to say the things I wanna say to you would be a crime") and get out with a minimum of fuss. They're simplistic, but they set the scene, only for the album to give way to an increasingly complex succession of masterpieces. "Save Yourself" and "One Day" see Van Etten interrogate thorny relationships with a wry sense of humour wrapped around languid country melodies, while "Don't Do It" takes on a pleading tone that echoes Third Eye Blind's "Jumper" without the insufferable Stephan Jenkins of it all. But the centre- and endpieces of the album cement it as a true classic. We've seen more bands than I care to name or listen to take influence from The Beatles' frothy psychedelic pieces, slathering their music in peppy McCartneyisms and loose conceptual arcs. epic
deserves acclaim for, if nothing else, drawing from a far more interesting well, building its tentpole tracks around steady Eastern drones which completely upend the tone of the album, just like George Harrison way back when.
But where "Within You Without You" deserves all the props for totally fucking up the vibe of McCartney's overblown concept album, Sharon Van Etten writes albums purely from her own perspective, clear-eyed and content with cutting through the layers of bullshit indie rock thrives on. It's there in "Don't Do It", the bulk of the song comprised of the chillingly straight plea "if you want to do it, you will if you want to" followed by a final line that slams down with the weight of a cathedral bell: "I wish I could make you right". It's there in "Dsharpg", riding a refrain of "what if I do?" across six minutes with the feeling that it could easily stretch into eternity. Without a single doubt, it is a contributor to what makes "Love More" the greatest song of the decade, even if it's only my
greatest song of the decade. The unflinching, unwavering autopsy of an abusive relationship Van Etten's work frequently returns to is here summed up in a few devastating lines: "yeah you chained me like a dog in our room / and I thought that's how it was, I thought we were doing fine." It's heart-stopping when the song circles around from that darkness to the refrain, "it made me love, it made me love more" - a grace note to a relationship, a career or an entire goddamn life, one of the most genuinely perfect lines I've heard in music.
I have no sweeping observations to offer epic
, no poetry to sum it up (Adrianne Lenker has already put anything the rest of us would ever write about this album to shame), and certainly no closing argument to claim its place in the indie-rock canon, or whatever we're supposed to do with albums on their anniversary. All I have to offer epic
is my undivided time and attention, and every time I hit play, that's exactly what it gets.