So, you remember those albums I was really excited about for January? Well, the dark, introspective part of me overrode the quirky and experimental this past month. I assign the blame to Sharon Van Etten, Brooklyn’s modern folk songstress. Her third album, Tramp, is out via Jagjaguwar, and upon first listen I realized that this was the album I hoped to get this year. ‘Heavy rotation’ does not even begin to explain how many times I envision myself appealing to Van Etten’s croon for understanding and rapport throughout the future months. Sharon, we have never met, but you will be my best friend this coming year. I will sing along with you, in grief and elation, and feel that through your songwriting you have looked into my soul and delivered the blackest as well as the most cherished emotions back to me through songs so pristine, that I know myself better now because of you.
Tramp starts off with “Warsaw”, with its shuffling beat and drawn out vocal lines. It is a shadow of a tease, a glimpse into what awaits during the rest of the album. As show-stopping an opening as you can get in folk, it is incredibly successful at setting the tone of candor and restrained emotions that Van Etten’s music is all about. Following up is “Give Out”, a song heartbreakingly honest, with a voice so tender and an acoustic guitar perfectly tempered to showcase the beauty of Van Etten’s vocals. The third track and first single off the album, “Serpents”, completes an opening trifecta for the album. “Serpents”, with its driving guitar strumming and powerful marching drum line makes for the best collective performance on the album. The track is flawlessly produced, the emotions palpable, the musicianship enviable.
With “Kevin’s”, the album veers towards a more subdued ambiance. Another jewel of a song, and a strong contrast to the dynamic power of “Serpents”, “Kevin’s” is a long, hushed and slurred wisp of a song, a guitar session around the glowing embers of a dying fire. The next set of songs are in the same vein, soft and plodding, profoundly meditative. Although not as arresting as the opening tracks, they function as an interesting intermission for the last set of cleaner songs.
“We Are Fine”, a duet of sorts with Beirut’s Zach Condon in which a pair of friends comfort each other through some sort of emotional break down, is the opener for this set of crisper compositions. It sounds fresher than the intermediary tracks, uncluttered by virtue of the perfect harmony of voices and strings. If the past few tracks were written around the faint light of a campfire, these were written in the brightest light of day. “Ask” is a token of sincerity through its tangible emotional ache, and its sparse piano line echoes the feeling to a T. “I’m Wrong” goes so far as to include some apprehensive twinkling bells to what would otherwise have been a re-statement of the more morose tracks.
Tramp’s last song does not give the album closure, which makes sense in a certain way. The album is characterized by the power of the emotions its music sought to capture, and when it comes to sentiment, borders are blurred. It is difficult to distinguish the end from the beginning, and that may very well be the aim. Tramp is more about introspection that it is about definition, and that is what makes it engaging for the listener. I identify with Van Etten, and am grateful to her for allowing me to do so through the sincerity of the emotions conveyed. Honesty is the first rule in friendship, and I foresee this being a long one.