By Micah McLain
First off, a disclaimer of sorts: I am a huge fan of Sharon Van Etten and have been ever since I first heard of her via All Songs Considered a couple of years ago. I was absolutely floored by “Love More” and have been equally impressed with the majority of her music since. With Tramp, Van Etten continues to grow and expand her sound, although this album also finds her occasionally settling back into some of the same sparse acoustic arrangements that she first explored on her debut Because I Was In Love. Van Etten has an amazingly evocative voice and an uncanny ability to pull a listener into a song, almost forcing you to feel her pain, sorrow and (much less often) joy through your speakers or headphones.
Opener “Warsaw” is short, light and airy with jangly guitar and tambourines, while “Give Out” is much more raw, both musically and lyrically. Van Etten has been playing the latter during her last several tours and it’s easy to see how much the track has been honed and polished over that time amidst the hard-hitting refrain of “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city or why I’ll need to leave.” With its bending guitars and undercurrent of percussion, lead single “Serpents” shows a newfound aggressiveness that Van Etten has merely hinted at in the past. This track also typifies the quality of production found on Tramp as multiple layers of sound swirl around and through one another. The National’s Aaron Dessner helped produce the album and his experience, as well as that of other collaborators such as Matt Barrick (Walkmen) and Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak) really help add that extra level of substance to an already outstanding recording. The influence of Beiruit’s Zach Condon is apparent on the sing-song cadence and uplifting aura of “We Are Fine” as he and Van Etten trade verses over an arrangement of violin, ukulele and accordion.
The last part of the album further showcases Van Etten’s extremely personal lyrics with “Ask” (“It’s not that I don’t cry/It’s that I have to hide”) and “I’m Wrong,” a letter asking for complacency and denial from a lover as a mishmash of orchestral accompaniment gradually expands to envelop her vocals. Van Etten and Dessner use sparse arrangement to near perfection on “Joke or Lie.” Seemingly random violin and piano notes combine with unifying acoustic chords to form the foundation for the slow, mournful delivery of lyrics to a soon-to-be ex-lover. Van Etten sings “I am alone/But I am alone in this room with you/Call it a joke or a lie…put your coat on then believe me/I tried” as the most beautiful track on Tramp slowly fades away and brings the album to a close.
Sharon Van Etten plays Black Cat on February 11…
… and The EARL on April 25.