Of all the solo-powerhouses in the indie rock / folk world, few have resonated with me quite as much as the work of Sharon Van Etten. At this point, I’m sure you’re quite familiar with her story: small time broody indie-nobody quietly releases album after album of her own unique brand of raw and powerful music that sits well with fans of The National, Bon Iver, Beirut. Oddly enough, these incredible records like 2014’sAre We There,and 2012’s Trampfailed to push Van Etten into the main fray of the indie world. Cut to 2019: she’s on billboards in NYC, playing Jimmy Kimmel, and pretty much every music publication under the face of the sun is talking about Sharon.
The first thing I noticed at her ACL Festival performance back in October, at which she played a few of the tracks from her new record, is that the guitar was missing. While these tracks–what I came to find out would be the singles for this release–came with a hard bite, the meat of most of the songs were heavy synths played by the inimitable Heather Woods Broderick. We got a bit of a taste of this direction onAre We There,though it was always countered with guitar, be it acoustic or electric. Singles “Comeback Kid,” “Jupiter 4,” and “Seventeen,” as they were released all confirmed this synthy-almost-pop approach, but Van Etten’s sulky vocals kept them grounded in her classic style. On “Comeback Kid,” we have big drums, wailing synths, and Van Etten’s voice as commanding as we’ve ever seen it. “Seventeen” sees her downright screaming, whereas “Jupiter 4” seemingly brings us back to the kind of track we’ve come to expect from Van Etten.
Each of these songs, and the whole record for the most part is a look back on past. This perspective shines brightest in the leaps SVE takes on “Jupiter 4” and “You Shadow.” The former is seeping with desperation and longing to be loved and the insane anticipation of stumbling into something good: “It’s true, that everyone would like to have met / a love so real.” The track a gorgeous love song–though it’s heavy in atmospheric synth, you get a little bit of guitar cutting in, but Van Etten’s vocals take the center. This song is a leap: like most SVE tracks, it’s rooted in this slow pace that seems ominous, but the lyrics are some of the most heart-warming we’ve ever heard from her. She confesses this love continues to move her now: “Turning the wheel on my street / my heart still skips a beat.” This song is a sincere and steadfast confession of being moved by the power of loving someone else, which is a feat to accomplish without sounding corny or trite.
“You Shadow” comes later on and takes the approach of a sing-song-y taunt you’d expect to hear in an argument between teenagers; it’s actually probably the most ‘pop’ track we’ve ever heard from SVE and it’s infectious. Though simple, the song’s melody gets wedged in to your head. The crunchy sounds are juxtaposed well by lighter, bouncy keys. The whole number has this laid back groove to it, but the casualness of the beat and the smooth delivery from Van Etten is contrasted highly in the bridge, where we get the sweeping power vocals once more. It’s a weird combination, but the result doubles down on the strength of the words Van Etten jeers: “You ain’t nothing / You never won.” One moment she’s telling us a story from the perspective of someone emotionally removed, bitter. Next in the bridge, she’s right back in the moment, spilling with emotions and raw anger.
SVE made a lot of bold sonic changes onRemind Me Tomorrow and the two tracks I described were examples of these choices paying off in a big way, but the rest of the album doesn’t always offer that same kind of payoff. I find myself not quite connecting with every song as I’d like to, and as I have in the past. Don’t get me wrong, in the end,Remind MeTomorrowis a good record, but it pales in comparison to her past two albums both in songwriting strength, and in musicality. Sharon Van Etten is immensely talented and well-deserving of the moment she’s having, but this record feels less vulnerable, which is what I’ve always found to be a ridiculously compelling factor (if not the most compelling factor) of her music. Oddly enough, though the sound is bigger than she’s ever done before, Van Etten is emotionally guarded behind those buzzing synths.
Perhaps with revisited listening the guard will come down, Remind Me (to listen again) Tomorrow.